The first thing taught in many law schools is that “the facts matter.” If a person cannot articulate the facts, or is not understood because of their dialect, they may never receive due process in our legal system. The murders of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and Rayshard Brooks are a stark reminder of how our criminal legal system targets Black communities. Every interaction between a person and the system - from being pulled over, to being involved in pretrial negotiations, to sitting in the courtroom, to being released from incarceration - is shaped by interpersonal racial biases and systemic discrimination. How do language, communication, and the role of SLP’s fit into the equation?
First, speakers of African American English (AAE), a linguistic dialect originating from Black communities during chattel slavery, are often deemed to have non-credible testimonies in the courtroom because their speech is considered “incomprehensible.” For instance, take the testimony of Rachel Jeantel, the prosecution’s key witness in the Zimmerman trial for Trayvon Martin’s murder. While Jeantel was a close friend of Martin who was with him right before his murder, and whose eye-witness account critically contradicted that of Zimmerman’s, her six-hour testimony was utterly ignored. Both the media and the jury criticized her for her use of AAE, with one juror claiming her testimony was “hard to understand” and “not credible.”
This case is but one example of how linguistic discrimination stands in the way of justice in the legal system. This bias not only affects those jurors, but also stenographers - the very people whose job it is to accurately record the statements in court! For example, in a study with 27 Philadelphia stenographers asked to transcribe a recording of AAE, researchers found that the stenographers incorrectly transcribed at least one out of every five sentences. Language discrimination rooted in racial bias is prevalent in the criminal justice system - but how can SLP’s intervene? As SLP’s, we are not only trained to provide culturally competent services, but also validate the complexity and cultural significance of all languages and dialects. We understand the clinical and cognitive aspects of language, and, unfortunately, have also witnessed how a student’s particular dialect is oftentimes deemed unfit for the Mainstream American English (MAE) classroom.
As SLP’s, we are uniquely positioned to be meaningful allies to those disproportionately targeted in our criminal legal system. We understand that from a linguistic perspective, AAE is no less valid than MAE and has its own structured system of syntax and vocabulary. We also understand the great harm caused when our students and clients are made to feel that their voice and communication is “incomprehensible” or “unintelligent.” It is our responsibility to uplift the voices in our community and to advocate for their rights not only in the classroom and the clinic, but also in the courtroom and prison systems.
Speech Language Pathology & the School-to-Confinement Pipeline
As speech therapists, we strive to enrich the lives of as many students and individuals as possible through providing them with the communication tools needed to succeed. However, we rarely consider the many students who cannot access this opportunity to begin with, particularly because they are caught up in a criminal justice system that does not diagnose or support their communication difficulties. At first glance, it may appear that an SLP’s job has no relationship with the prison system. However, did you know that the rate of communication disorders (especially language disorders) within adult prisons has been estimated to be at least four to five times that of the general population? And that within juvenile detention centers, the rate may be even higher? What are the roots of these staggering statistics?
The answer lies in the school-to-confinement pipeline – the policing and criminalization of predominantly low-income students of color in schools, which ultimately traps these students into a life of incarceration. Especially in Black and brown communities, students are more likely to be disciplined or suspended than be given educational or rehabilitative resources. These punitive rather than rehabilitative policies further stereotype minority students as “dangerous,” block students from much-needed educational resources, and create conditions of social control that promote criminal activity in the future.
For minority students who also have cognitive or communication disorders (CCD), this phenomenon is unfortunately exacerbated - for example, one in four African American students with disabilities will be suspended at least once. In an education system that’s already failing to support its typically developing students, students with CCD are particularly under-supported in special education classrooms and receive inadequate – if any – intervention. As a result, schools are ill-equipped when a minority student with CCD displays behaviors that are a direct result of their condition, and these behaviors are disciplined as “disruptive” and “problematic.” A student that has difficulty following classroom directions, regulating or communicating their frustration, or understanding social pragmatics when interacting with teachers is simply punished and written off as a “bad student” rather than properly diagnosed by culturally competent SLP’s. Instead of being a signal for much-needed intervention and support, the language behaviors displayed by minority students with CCD are harshly disciplined.
As SLP’s we are able to intercept the harmful cycle of the school-to-confinement pipeline, as we can improve students’ communicative abilities so they can build relationships with their communities, self-advocate, and ultimately build a successful life away from incarceration. At the same time, we must also recognize the role we play in advocating for systemic change. We as SLP’s and advocates can, and must, be meaningful allies to the radical and visionary BIPOC activists who are dismantling our criminal justice system and reimagining our education system to properly nurture all our students.
Jones, Taylor, et al. “Testifying While Black: An Experimental Study of Court Reporter Accuracy in Transcription of African American English.” Language, vol. 95, no. 2, 2019, pp. e216–e252.
Stanford, Shameka, and Bahiyyah Muhammad. “THE CONFLUENCE OF LANGUAGE AND LEARNING DISORDERS AND THE SCHOOL-TO-PRISON PIPELINE AMONG MINORITY STUDENTS OF COLOR: A CRITICAL RACE THEORY.” The American University Journal of Gender, Social Policy & the Law, vol. 26, no. 2, 2018, pp. 691–718.