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.
“Most of them didn’t know how to talk, and I didn’t know how to sign,” he says. “I learned sign language there.”
Early on, Allebest became interested in the law through his attorney-father. As a kid, he read books on law and history and watched CNN — “That’s how much of a nerd I was,” he says. He was a member of the school’s mock trial team, and in the role of an attorney he consistently scored 14 out of a possible 15 points. His coach told him, “If you don’t become an attorney, you’re wasting your time.”
He was, by his own estimation, a poor student. He received wakeup calls from teachers who told him that his dream of attending law school wasn’t going to happen, partly because he was deaf and partly because of his study habits. He got serious about his grades as a senior, but one year of good grades couldn’t overcome three mediocre years, and he wound up spending a year at Southern Virginia University and then a year at BYU-Idaho. In between he served a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the Rochester, N.Y., area, using sign language and speech to proselyte among the deaf.
“The mission really helped,” he says. “It gave me discipline and knowledge and whipped me into shape.”
He transferred to BYU and took a degree in English with a minor in political science, then took the shotgun approach for graduate school by applying at various schools in three areas of study — English, political science and law — to test his options. He had offers for all three, but when Thomas Jefferson School of Law accepted him, he moved to San Diego.
“I asked myself, what gets me up in the morning, what am I most passionate about?” he says. “It’s law.”
He has hard-won empathy and compassion for people with disabilities. As a child, his peers teased him and called him names because of his deafness. He shrugs it off now. “It stems from ignorance and a lack of experience with deaf people," he says. "Being deaf isn’t all bad. It has its advantages. Generally people are not good listeners. Deaf people are very good listeners. Their disability forces them to listen, not just to the sound but what is actually being said. A lot of (hearing) people have an auditory shorthand, and they’re not in the moment with the person. But the deaf are forced to be in the moment.”
He believes people tend to underestimate the abilities of the deaf. “I hear this from employers all the time — they (the deaf) are their best employees because they are focused," says Allebest. "They don’t have a lot of distractions. Technology today has opened a lot of doors for deaf people. There are deaf doctors and lawyers.”
In addition to his fledgling law practice, Allebest also teaches at Utah Valley University, provides counsel at a community deaf center in Taylorsville and serves on a steering committee for Loop Utah, an advocate for bringing public facilities into compliance with the American Disabilities Act. Most associate ADA requirements with wheelchair ramps and parking spaces, but the law also includes electronic aids for the deaf in public arenas. Its vision is to enable the hearing-impaired to connect to an induction loop or electromagnetic communication system with their hearing aids in churches, arenas, businesses and other public gathering places.
Despite his disability, or perhaps because of it, Allebest has tackled the world head on. He has traveled to 25 countries. He performed on stage in high school theater productions. He even did stand-up comedy, once performing at the Laugh Factory in L.A.
“They heckled me,” he says. “I had fun with that. I said: ‘Think about it; what’s the point? I can’t even hear you?’ I turned it around and made fun of them.” He worked as an extra on a movie filmed in Salt Lake City and still tries to land other small acting jobs, but his day job is the law.
“Times are hard," he says. "I have a lot of friends (with law degrees) who gave up and took other jobs. But this is what I went to school to do, and I’m going to do it.”
Doug Robinson's columns run on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org