Deaf Returning Citizens


In the District of Columbia, there is an office known as ORCA – Office of Returning Citizens Affairs – that aids in the transition from prisons to a new life. The old-school terms ‘ex-con’ and ‘ex-prisoner’ has been discarded in favor of the more welcoming term ‘returning citizen’. The warmer, more positive phrase is now preferred.

This program and others like it around the country provide assistance for finding work, housing, and ongoing support to stay out of trouble.

Deaf returning citizens don’t have these support services. They are forced to rely on the kindness and patience of friends and family, and those sources of support are not always available. This leaves deaf returning citizens with limited options.

The path to personal improvement lies in becoming integrated with the community – having a new chance, a fresh start, and a positive outlook. One chapter of the returning citizens’ life has closed. A new one opens, and access to new opportunities is needed to succeed.

Deaf people are especially challenged because the Deaf population is typically spread out and thin. There are clusters of Deaf people in major cities. These are where the best support opportunities exist.

An important consideration is funding. Because these communities are spread out, it’s not clear whether support services should be locally, state or federally funded. This is question for discussion, but the need for the deaf returning citizens is clear, and the benefit for the wider community is also clear – working, productive returning Deaf citizens is in everyone’s best interests.

Support programs can be community-based or centralized at a specific location, but the most important element is communication access. ASL instruction should be available for ASL users, and alternatives, such as captioned videos, can work for Deaf people with no knowledge of ASL.

Deaf returning citizens have rights, but without advocacy they struggle to exercise those rights. For example, minor offenses can be removed from their records, but without assistance navigating the legal system, they may not be able to do this. Clear instruction and support help erase stigma and remove barriers to employment.

According to DC’s Office of Human Rights:

“During the application or interview process, the law prohibits employers from asking job applicants about:

  • Arrests;
  • Criminal accusations made against the applicant that are not pending or did not result in a conviction; or
  • Criminal convictions.

However, an employer may ask about criminal conviction(s) after extending a conditional offer of employment (the employer can never ask about arrests or criminal acusations that aren’t pending). An employer who properly asks about a criminal conviction can only withdraw the offer or take adverse action against the applicant for a legitimate business reason that is reasonable under the six factors** listed in the Act. If a job offer is revoked or adverse action taken, employers should provide the applicant with a Notice of the Right to File a Complaint. Job applicants can also request their interview and hire-related records, including any criminal background records obtained, from the employer using the Request form or any other method.”


Deaf returning citizens need the same services already available to hearing returning citizens, but in many places these services simply don’t exist. This urgent need deserves prioritization, funding and focus – everyone benefits from safer communities.

– Kevin McLeod