Sarah Burke was cooking dinner for her family when police came knocking at her door.
As she tells it, the Denver officers kept ignoring the obvious fact that both she and her husband are profoundly deaf and unable to read lips.
Police finally asked the couple's son to sign to Burke that she had a bench warrant for allegedly failing to file paperwork related to a 2-year-old misdemeanor case. "Contempt of court" was a concept that the 8-year-old boy couldn't grasp, let alone interpret.
The cuffs tying Burke's hands behind her back kept her from communicating the best way she knows how — in American Sign Language. She spent the night in jail without an interpreter to explain what she was in for.
"I had no idea what any of this was about," she signs. "I kept asking for help. I kept trying to ask. They refused to write anything down. I was cut off from the world. Cold shoulder. They gave me nothing but a cold shoulder."
Burke is a plaintiff in a lawsuit alleging the city violated the Americans with Disabilities Act, the federal law guaranteeing the right to sign language interpretation for the deaf.
Another plaintiff, Roger Krebs, was recharging his text phone batteries during a bus transfer in March 2007 when a guard told him to get up off the floor of the Greyhound station. Krebs' deafness kept him from hearing the guard, whom he says started kicking and beating him until Krebs bit him and was arrested. He pleaded guilty rather than wait the 72 hours he was told it would take for an ASL interpreter.
Shawn Vigil spent a month awaiting trial on felony sex-assault changes in 2005 before he hanged himself in his jail cell. Documents show that sheriffs' deputies knew he was deaf but, once again, failed to provide an interpreter. No one apparently noticed that he was functionally illiterate. And no one seemed to mind that he was unable to read the "intake questionnaire" well enough to understand a question asking if he had a disability or needed accommodations.
"To our knowledge, there's been no evidence that he ever asked for an interpreter," says Sabrina D'Agosta, a city spokeswoman.
Vigil's mom has joined the lawsuit.
We'll never know how much — if at all — his inability to communicate led to his suicide. But I have no doubt that being stuck voiceless in the echo-chamber of a Denver jail would be maddening beyond words.
"I don't know how he survived that kind of isolation even for a month," Burke says.
In addition to federal law, Denver policy promises interpretation for deaf people dealing with city government. The city's Commission for People with Disabilities pledges that "family members are not utilized to fill the role of an interpreter," and its Agency for Human Rights and Community Relations has a full-time ASL interpreter on the payroll.
"We have interpreters available 2 4/7," D'Agosta said.
Funny, then, that a nurse at Denver's jail has testified that interpreters are "not always on-call and it could take up to 72 hours to arrange for one."
Funny, too, that in two years of bitterly fighting the lawsuit, city attorneys argue that having to provide an interpreter "would constitute an undue burden on Denver."
It's sick enough that the city locks up deaf people without bothering to communicate with them. What's even sicker is the lip service officials give while trying to justify their callousness in our names.