February 10, 2023
BEIJING – Lawyer Tang Shuai and his specialist team of legal eagles use various forms of sign language to advocate on behalf of deaf and mute clients, Wang Ru reports.
Recalling the starting point of his career, Tang Shuai, 38, a lawyer based in Southwest China’s Chongqing, renowned for dealing with cases related to deaf and mute clients, notes that he was only 4 years old.
His father had suddenly fallen ill and was sent to a hospital. Although he had a severe stomachache, he couldn’t describe his ailment to the doctor because he is both deaf and mute. As such, the doctor wasn’t able to make an accurate diagnosis.
Seeing his father curl up on the sickbed in pain, with sweat soaking through his shirt and into the sheet, Tang was anxious, and made up his mind there and then to learn sign language so that, in future, he would be able to help his parents communicate.
Tang was born in Chongqing in 1985, and both of his parents are deaf and mute. Through a sense of self-loathing because of their condition, they sent Tang to live with his grandparents, and forbade him from learning sign language.
“They believed that people with such conditions live with very low social status. When I was labeled as an ‘ordinary’ person in their minds, they tried to push me away from that world,” says Tang.
But, against their wishes, after witnessing his father’s difficulty at the hospital, he began to learn sign language from his grandmother and his parents’ colleagues at a local factory, and gradually became proficient.
One day, when he was a primary school student, friends of his parents visited his family. Tang was surprised to find that he couldn’t understand their sign language at all. That opened his eyes to the existence of different “dialects” of sign language. Since then, he would go to the most popular tourist attractions in Chongqing to learn different types of sign language from tourists.
In his interactions with people who are both deaf and mute, he developed a greater understanding of the group, and gradually became a bridge connecting them with wider society. When he discovered that one area where they regularly faced problems was legal affairs, he began to help them, and has organized a team of lawyers, most of whom are deaf and some are also mute, to represent them. According to Tang, in the past decade, his law firm has helped more than 200,000 deaf and mute people.
After he graduated from senior high school, Tang’s parents were laid off, so he dropped out of school to find work and relieve the burden of his family. He tried different jobs, including as a construction worker, bar singer and shop assistant.In 2005, with his proficiency in sign language, he was offered the opportunity to translate for the public security bureau in Jiulongpo district of Chongqing, as they had just arrested a gang of suspected thieves, who were all deaf and mute. The police were unable to interrogate them because of the communication barrier.
Tang agreed and provided sign language translation for half an hour, and the accused confessed. In the wake of that, Tang was recruited by the bureau to help deal with cases related to deaf and mute people.
“Since communication problems often occurred in cases relating to deaf and mute people, there was often injustice. I felt heartbroken when I saw their helplessness,” says Tang, who has helped in more than 1,000 cases over the years as a translator for the bureau.
“Deaf and mute people also want to play their role in the society, and in a fair way. When their legitimate interests are infringed upon, they want to find a way to sue. When they break the law, they are required to remedy their actions. But these things are all extremely difficult for them to understand,” he adds.
To better help them, he decided to work as a lawyer. In 2011, he resigned from his job and enrolled at Southwest University of Political Science and Law, gaining the certificate to be a lawyer in 2012. Then, he opened his law firm and began to provide much-needed help to people in the deaf and mute community.
He says the various dialects of sign language are a major barrier in his clients’ communication with others. According to him, deaf and mute people from different places learn various versions of sign language, which are very different from the standard form taught at school. Therefore, their expressions are often misread.
In 2016, an anxious woman visited Tang’s office to seek help, saying her daughter had been charged with stealing, but she firmly believed her daughter was innocent. Tang rushed to the police station where the daughter was being held, and the girl also professed her innocence.
Tang then went to the local procuratorate to check the evidence for the case, and found that, due to the dialect of the sign language, the translator had misunderstood the girl’s expression, and thought she had admitted guilt during her interrogation, while she actually wanted to say she was innocent. Tang’s efforts saved the girl from being wrongly imprisoned.According to Tang, there are more than 27 million deaf and mute people in China, and some of them resort to crime to make a living. “With their condition, they often find it difficult to get a job, but they still need to support their family. On the other hand, they have little legal understanding and may not have received much education. These factors can all lead to the committing of a crime,” says Tang.
To increase their legal understanding, Tang has made short videos explaining law-related knowledge, and opened a public WeChat account to provide legal consultancy services to deaf and mute people through video calls.
Starting in 2017, he has organized a team of lawyers, comprising five deaf and mute advocates, and trained them for a whole year. According to Tang, it’s a carefully selected team. “Three of them have basic listening and speaking abilities, and the other two have a good mastery of both standard sign language and various dialects,” he explains.
“They have helped me a lot in publicizing law-related knowledge and providing legal services to the deaf and mute community.”
One of the team members, Tan Ting, 31, passed the legal exam in 2020, becoming the first deaf lawyer in China.
In 2021, promoted by Tang, an experimental class was launched by Tang’s alma mater, Southwest University of Political Science and Law, to enroll 40 fresh students every year to study both law and sign language. Tang and Tan are both teachers of the class and, in the future, deaf and mute students will be enrolled to the class as well.
One of the students, 21-year-old Ma Wenrui, says: “After entering the class, I have made clear that my mission is to enable more deaf and mute people to understand and obey the law, and be able to help them protect their legal rights.