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The 30 Top Thinkers Under 30: The Activist Attorney Working to Promote Justice for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing

We canvassed the world of the social and behavioral sciences, looking for rising stars whose careers promise to make a lasting mark. We'll be profiling the top 30 throughout the month of April.


(Illustration: Graham Smith)

(Illustration: Graham Smith)

Back when Talila “T.L.” Lewis was a political science major at American University, during an internship at Washington, D.C.’s Public Defender Service, a letter caught Lewis’ attention.

It was from John Wilson, Jr., a deaf man who had been interrogated by police officers without an American Sign Language interpreter as required by federal law. He claimed that he’d been wrongfully convicted. From prison, he’d written a torrent of letters to judges, lawyers, and legal organizations pleading for help: “These letters—written in this man’s best attempt at English—were summarily dismissed or unanswered for years,” Lewis says. “It was 2007 when I began working on his case. He had been in prison since 1994.”

Lewis is still working to exonerate Wilson—his case served as inspiration for Lewis to get a law degree, also from American University, and to start an all-volunteer non-profit called Helping Educate to Advance the Rights of the Deaf to promote justice for the deaf and hard of hearing.

“I firmly believe that he is factually innocent of the crimes for which he has now served more than 20 years,” Lewis says. “The struggle to locate culturally competent attorneys with the requisite knowledge and resources, and the barriers that I encountered investigating innocence cases as a mere concerned citizen, led me to create HEARD.”

"I believe that active love and accountable activism will lead to our collective liberation. I am committed to creating a new world that is driven by love and radical inclusion."

In Lewis’ view, many of the people HEARD serves are unfairly imprisoned because their disability wasn’t understood or accommodated well enough during the process through which they were charged with a crime. Over the past eight years, Lewis has worked on at least 15 cases of deaf people being wrongfully convicted.

But prisoners tell Lewis that the conditions of their confinement are so bad that they actually prefer that HEARD works to fix that even before submitting their innocence cases. “Stories of sexual and physical abuse, isolation, and persistent language deprivation—often so severe that it caused deaf people to forget how to communicate in sign language and English—emerged from jails and prisons across the nation,” Lewis says.

Their pleas to improve prison conditions led Lewis to develop a database that helps people advocate for prisoners with disabilities. “Surprisingly,” Lewis says, “most departments of corrections do not screen prisoners for sensory disabilities or index prisoners who are known to be deaf, so abuse has gone unchecked for years.”

Lewis also leads the Deaf Prisoner Phone Justice Campaign, which lobbies the Federal Communications Commission and the United States Department of Justice to ensure that deaf and disabled prisoners gain equal access to telecommunications.

“Over the course of two years,” Lewis says, “I mobilized unprecedented deaf community participation in the FCC’s comment period by making the information accessible to signers and available to prisoners, both of whom are often cut off from society, information, and the democratic process due to the structural audism and ableism that pervades our institutions.”

Lewis’ answer to the question “Where are you from?” is: “I am from everywhere and nowhere. Growing up in a military family afforded me the opportunity to discover diverse cultures and the magnificence of human variation very early on.”

Lewis is also gender fluid: “That means that I prefer not to be gendered by anyone but instead to fall into whatever gender I happen to fall into in any given moment. This also means that sometimes I have no gender, while other times I am multiple genders simultaneously. In any instance, I am free to be me—whatever that is.”

“I prefer no pronouns,” Lewis says. “People should just use my name in place of where a pronoun would otherwise be inserted. If you are around me, you should ask my preferred gender pronoun. If I have one that day, it should be used. If not, feel free to use my name.”

In addition to being the volunteer director of HEARD, Lewis is a visiting professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology's National Technical Institute for the Deaf, teaching criminal justice and civil rights.

“I dream incessantly of justice,” Lewis says. “I believe that active love and accountable activism will lead to our collective liberation. I am committed to creating a new world that is driven by love and radical inclusion.”

We’ll be publishing profiles of this year’s list of the 30 top thinkers under 30 throughout the month of April. Visit this page every day to read about another young person who is making an impact on the social, political, and economic issues we make it our mission to cover every day at Pacific Standard.

A version of this year’s list is also available to subscribers as a feature in our May/June print issue. For more from Pacific Standard on the science of society, and to support our work, sign up for our email newsletter and subscribe to our bimonthly magazine. Digital editions are available in the App Store (iPad) and on Zinio (Android, iPad, PC/MAC, iPhone, and Win8), Amazon, and Google Play (Android).