2014 Graduate Fills a Gap in Services for the Deaf Community

Soon-to-Be “Double Eagle” Seeks to Improve Justice System for Deaf Individuals

When Talila A. Lewis walks across the stage on May 18 to earn her JD from American University Washington College of Law , three years of hard work toward earning her degree will come to a close. However, her graduation will mark the beginning of a new chapter for HEARD (Helping Educate to Advance the Rights of the Deaf), the non-profit Lewis founded in 2011 that works to make the U.S. justice system more accessible to deaf and hard of hearing individuals.

After graduating from AU's School of Public Affairs in 2007, Lewis worked for several years as a paralegal for the D.C. Public Defender Service and D.C. Public Service Commission. During that time she discovered and began working on cases of possible deaf wrongful conviction. During that time, she realized that organizations and attorneys either did not have the resources or an understanding of Deaf culture enough to take on these cases.

Lewis decided to fill this gap in services by taking on the cases herself.

Spotting Trends

As Lewis investigated more cases, she began to see trends. For example, many deaf individuals had not had access to an interpreter during their interrogation with police officers or when they met with their own attorneys.

“When I realized that it was a systemic issue—and not just in our area, but coast to coast—I knew we needed to change the system,” said Lewis. “We needed to change our profession—the justice system, the legal system, reentry, the prison system, everything.”

Lewis regularly issued FOIAs against government agencies when investigating cases, but had a hard time getting updates about their status because she was not an attorney or affiliated with an organization. She also worked for years tracking down evidence and witnesses for cases, but could not file on her own because she did not have a JD.

“I didn’t have anything other than a heart of concern about what was going on within our system,” said Lewis.

In response to this resistance and the need to change the system, Lewis launched HEARD and then set out to get her law degree.

A Force of Nature

“Talila is a force of nature,” said Robert Dinerstein , associate dean of experiential education and director of the Disability Rights Clinic at AUWCL. “Somehow, she has managed to combine being a successful and active member of the law school community—among other things, having co-founded the Disability Law Society—with founding and running her NGO, HEARD. She is passionate about everything she does. Her goals regarding improving the lives of Deaf/DeafBlind and other people with disabilities caught up in the criminal justice system are ambitious but I for one would not bet against her.”

Lewis said she was able to juggle her law school schedule with her work at HEARD by making sacrifices.

“We go to law school to learn a trade and a craft, and that is very important,” said Lewis. “At the end of the day though, nothing is more important than the world outside. The difference between me making an A or B doesn’t matter when I have people being abused or killed in prison.”

An Urgent Need Discovered

For the past three years HEARD’s work has expanded to meet the needs of the community. For example, since there are only six videophones in prisons across the country that allow deaf prisoners to communicate in their native language (sign language), Lewis began using her own resources to meet with deaf individuals in-person. Through these conversations, she discovered that although these people needed help overturning their wrongful convictions, they more urgently needed an advocate so they could live day-to-day in a dignified way, protected from prison abuse.

Today, HEARD works to bring an end to police brutality against deaf people, has created the only national database of Deaf and DeafBlind prisoners, and provides countless trainings and consultations within the legal and Deaf communities. Lewis has submitted testimony to the U.S. Senate, testified in front of the D.C. Council, been invited to speak at a workshop at the Federal Communications Commission, and much more. Lewis has received much recognition for her work , most recently being named one of Ebony Magazine’s Power 100 of 2013, and receiving the prestigious 2014 Paul G. Hearne Leadership Award by the American Association of People with Disabilities.

“My vision is to one day have more deaf and hard of hearing representation in the justice and legal professions,” said Lewis. “My goal is to create a pipeline to the legal profession and justice system for the deaf and hard of hearing so we can change the system from the inside out.”

After graduation, Lewis will continue to seek funding for HEARD and work to secure a full-time position. She would like to see more law schools become supportive of entrepreneurs, creating specialized tracks for students like her who are already very involved in public interest work.

Her advice to future lawyers? “Follow your heart and believe in the possibility of change.”

“What drives me is love for the community and belief in accountable activism,” said Lewis. “Even though it seems like a battle with all of these systems that are much more powerful than you, you can make a change. Get the right people on board and believe in yourself, your dream, and your vision.”