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People Top 5
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- June 04, 1979
- Vol. 11
- No. 22
'dummy' Lawyer Lowell Myers Takes Aim at Rights for the Deaf
What was your own earliest experience with discrimination against the deaf?
As a child I heard horrible stories from deaf-mutes like my parents about how they had tried to apply for jobs at certain factories but were turned away at the gate. All the while the personnel offices of these companies were saying, "We never turn down handicapped people." I was brought up on stories like that.
Did you personally face that sort of discrimination?
I wanted to become a doctor, but I was told in advance that even if I took every biology and chemistry course, no medical school in the country would admit me. It was a terrible blow. I decided I should become an accountant and go to law school. But when I applied to John Marshall Law School, the dean didn't want to let me in. He said, "You won't be able to hear the professors—you are almost certain to flunk out."
What was your answer?
"This is America, right? In America, everybody gets a chance, right? You give me my chance." After the first seminar I was okay. I graduated from law school second in my class. At the same time I was earning my CPA.
What was your first case as a lawyer for the deaf?
My goodness—there were dozens and dozens of cases waiting for me when I graduated. I'm still working on some of them. One of these days I may catch up.
Can you describe a typical case?
Late one evening a man rang my doorbell. He had driven 300 or 400 miles to see me. He told me in sign language, "My son came to me early last year and asked me to sign an income tax form. But now I have learned I signed away my home." In Illinois the transfer of a deed has to be acknowledged before a notary public. In court I asked the notary whether she spoke sign language; she didn't. In fact, she had not even seen the man. His son had explained the father was deaf. That sort of thing is typical. We got the man's home back for him.
Do you have many such cases?
Hundreds. Door-to-door salesmen may be turned away by deaf people, but they know they can probably sign the deaf person's name and stick him or her with the contract. Even if it goes to court, the deaf person won't be a good witness. Lots of them have problems, not just because of their deafness but because they lack the education to deal with the world.
Why is that?
They get short shrift at school. They have little or no access to television, radio, movies—all the things that provide background for a modern person. And so they are constantly taken advantage of.
Do you have an example among your cases?
One poor man got a letter inviting him to a free dinner and free movie. The movie was about swimming in Florida, flowers in Florida, fishing in Florida. A salesman said to him, "Do you like swimming, fishing? Well, sign here." He did. A normal person would obviously not be so quick to sign. That man was stuck for $8,000 for a patch of sand worth at best $100.1 managed to get him out of it, but a month later he came back to me and this time he'd bought an oil well.
What can be done?
After a tremendous number of pathetic cases I was able to get the Illinois supreme court to rule that, when dealing with a deaf person, the other party is required to use "the utmost good faith." That precedent can be used by lawyers in other states.
What has been done to help the deaf in court?
It used to be that there were no interpreters for the deaf, unless the deaf person hired one—and few could afford that. In 1963 I drafted a law requiring that the counties in this state provide the deaf-mute with an interpreter in every case, civil or criminal. Then I went to the capital in Springfield myself and found 113 legislators to co-sponsor the bill. It was the first law of its kind. It has been copied by roughly half the states.
What other advances have been made?
A deaf man here was involved in a traffic accident. As a result the Illinois legislature considered banning deaf drivers. Well, again, I had to go to Springfield to talk and educate. The deaf have a lower accident rate. Why? Because they are less distracted, they have to concentrate very hard on what they do. Above all, deaf people have learned to be patient. The legislature dropped that nonsense. If they hadn't, I'd be on roller skates now.
Are the deaf aware of their rights?
No. Neither are judges, lawyers or social workers. I finally wrote a book, which the federal government now publishes, titled The Law and the Deaf, explaining the rights and special problems of the deaf. A teacher of the deaf complained it was too difficult for children, so I wrote another one just for them. It is used in English-speaking countries all over the world.
What are some of the rights deaf people have, but often aren't aware of?
Every deaf individual has a right to an education—a suitable and proper education. Sometimes school districts simply stick a deaf child into a regular classroom and say, "Well, he'll pick up something." That's not true. There are many new laws guaranteeing this right. But those laws are just paper. Often someone has to go to court to make them a reality.
What about employment?
Deaf people cannot be discriminated against by prospective employers. You can't be denied a job on the basis of your handicap, unless that handicap would directly interfere with the work to be done. That sort of discrimination occurs anyway. We try to settle all these cases out of court—but that isn't always possible.
How did you come to be involved with Donald Lang, the accused murderer in Dummy?
I was appointed to handle his case—as I am with nearly every case that involves a deaf-mute in Illinois. Here was a boy who had never received any education, had never been taught to read, write or even use sign language. Despite all this he got along beautifully. He worked at the same place 12 years. His boss liked him. He was a nice, friendly guy. Then he was arrested for killing a prostitute.
How did you view the case at the time?
The state's case was largely circumstantial. There wasn't much evidence against Donald. They just picked him because he was convenient, and he couldn't explain what had happened. Actually, the police thought he could hear—that he was faking. But eventually the charges were dropped.
What happened then?
Donald went home, and six months later he was arrested and charged with the murder of another prostitute. This case also was largely based on circumstantial evidence, but Donald was found guilty. Then the decision was reversed on appeal because he had been unable to defend himself. He couldn't tell me what had happened. We're expecting a new trial to be ordered.
Where is Donald now?
Still in custody. It's been a total of 13 years. I was able to get him $15,000 from the book Dummy and another $25,000 from the TV movie based on it. So he has money enough for bail. But, in addition to bail, the judge says he wants Donald to receive the education the state should have given him as a child. The official assigned to do this at the Illinois Department of Mental Health has refused, saying it's not his responsibility. He was charged with contempt of court. Lang's case is again before the Illinois supreme court, but Donald remains behind bars.
April 27, 2015
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