Hear ye, hear ye, a deaf attorney

Published: Saturday, Jan. 4 2014 8:00 p.m. MST

Jared Allebest stands inside the Matheson Courthouse in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Dec. 11, 2013. Allebest is one of fewer than 200 deaf attorneys in the United States.

Matt Gade, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Did you hear the one about the deaf lawyer? No, this isn’t the start of a joke.

Jared Allebest is a lawyer, and he’s profoundly deaf without hearing aids. The 33-year-old BYU grad and former Mormon missionary took a circuitous route to complete his education, and two years ago he opened a private practice in Salt Lake City despite all the people who told him his deafness precluded such ambitions. He’s taken cases to trial in Ogden, Provo and Salt Lake.

“I use (a sign language) interpreter, but only to hear what has been said either by the judge, opposing counsel or the witness,” he explains. “I never use sign language when presenting my case before the court. I am more comfortable speaking than signing."

Allebest is a rarity in the profession. It is estimated there are fewer than 200 deaf attorneys in the country, which is surprising when you consider about 10 million Americans are hard of hearing and 1 million are functionally deaf. There are many obstacles for those with a hearing disability who aspire to join the legal profession. Even the terminology seems stacked against them and their clients.

There are legal “hearings;” in courtrooms, juries “hear” evidence, but they can’t accept “hearsay"; a trial doesn’t even begin until the bailiff utters the cry: “Hear ye, hear ye!” Justice is blind — but is it deaf?

The Deaf and Hard of Hearing Bar Association was created recently as a resource for hearing-impaired attorneys, judges, law students and other legal professionals.

Allebest started a private practice when he couldn't find a job with a law firm, which he blames mostly on the economic climate. “I applied everywhere (for a job),” he says. “The answer was underneath my nose: I can work for deaf people. I have the skill and I know their world. I don’t want to be typecast (as an attorney only for the deaf), but my calling is to be a bridge between the deaf and the hearing.”

At every level, from arrest to trial, the deaf and hard of hearing face unique challenges in the legal system. Allebest represented a deaf college student charged with disorderly conduct, but much of his behavior was simply a byproduct of his hearing impairment and the ignorance of those with whom he was trying to communicate.

As Allebest tells it: “He wanted to meet with someone at the college, but they wouldn’t provide an interpreter. He had to do it by pen and paper, and it was very frustrating. They didn’t understand. He wanted to speak what he was trying to say, not write. He got upset. Deaf people rely on facial expressions and animation to help them communicate. He was making loud noises. He was pounding his fist and yelling and making faces to communicate. They took it as an act of aggression and called the police.”

Allebest also represents a deaf woman in a civil action against Weber State University. The school denied her advancement and the requisite letter of recommendation to take the state test because of her deafness, but eventually relented (the case received media attention). The student functions with hearing aids.

It is just such cases that Allebest considers his raison d’etre. He has had hearing and deaf clients, but he tends to attract many of the latter.

“It’s fulfilling because I’m helping to make the world better for people like me,” he says. “Advocacy was one of the reasons I wanted to get into law.”

Allebest, who was raised in Laguna Hills, Calif., as the youngest of three kids, was born deaf. Doctors suspect the culprit was a virus. He learned to talk at a grade school that specialized in speech therapy for the deaf, before he was mainstreamed in the fifth grade. He attended a high school in which most of the students are deaf.

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