For Florida’s three million citizens who are deaf or hard of hearing, being heard and properly represented by the hearing world can mean the difference between life and death, success and failure, freedom and incarceration.
The failure to accommodate deaf residents’ communication needs often results in severe and tragic consequences, including the failure to receive a proper education, higher rates of unemployment, medical misdiagnosis and the greater likelihood of wrongful conviction.
The case of Felix Garcia is a prime example of a terrible injustice that grew out of the system’s failure to meet the critical needs of deaf Floridians.
Garcia, a deaf man, was framed and wrongly convicted of murder in 1983. The trial court failed to provide adequate accommodations to make sure he understood what was being said. He did not have the benefit of a sign language interpreter and his inability to understand the proceedings played a significant role in his conviction.
Although his brother and sister later provided affidavits attesting to his innocence, Felix remains behind bars, having served 32 years of a life sentence so far.
It will take an act of the governor and Cabinet, serving as the clemency board, to right this wrong and provide executive clemency to Garcia.
For other deaf citizens, the Florida Legislature is in a prime position to make sure their rights are protected and their needs are met. This year, advocates are promoting legislation, SB 1304 and HB 1125, that would require licensure of sign language interpreters and restoration of funding for the council that coordinates the state’s policies concerning deaf Floridians.
Having competent, credentialed sign language interpreters will help avoid grave consequences like the one that befell Garcia and will ensure that deaf Floridians enjoy the same rights as other Florida citizens.
It is the fundamental responsibility of elected officials to listen to all of their constituents and serve as their voice.
Raise your voice by encouraging the Florida Legislature to pass this important legislation and provide the modest funding needed to make sure the needs of deaf residents are represented.
You can also visit Justice for Felix Garcia on Facebook to sign the petition asking the governor and cabinet to grant him clemency.
Reggie Garcia, Tallahassee