Chongqing-based lawyer Tang Shuai has become something of a celebrity among China’s estimated 20 million deaf people after a promotional video released online earlier this year identified him as a lawyer proficient in sign language.
Overnight, deaf people from around the country began adding him up on WeChat, and because the mobile application allows a maximum of 5,000 contacts, he had to have two phones to stay connected to the 10,000 newfound friends.
Born to deaf parents, sign language came naturally to Tang Shuai. As a child, he would pick up signs just by conversing with his parents’ friends. Over the years, he would become intimately acquainted with the needs and aspirations of the deaf community, and with how poorly the deaf were understood by mainstream society.
Because legal awareness remains very low among the deaf community, deaf individuals often unwittingly find themselves in legally compromising situations, Tang says. And with a legal system that is poorly equipped to cater to the needs of the deaf, many have no way of accessing the legal services they are entitled to.
Even in the rare instance that a sign language interpreter is available in court, they are usually trained in the official putonghua-based system promoted by the state as Chinese Sign Language, which is still very different from the sign language that deaf people in China use on a day-to-day basis. The difficulty is compounded by the fact that in a country as large as China, sign language may vary from region to region, and deaf people from each region may possess their own dialects, slangs, accents and vocabularies.
Because no other lawyer has emerged so far that is similarly fluent in sign language, Tang sees an urgent need to train up a new generation of lawyers equipped to serve the deaf community.
In a few months time, a handful of Tang’s proteges will be taking the national judicial examinations. If they succeed in getting called to the bar, they will be making history by becoming China’s first deaf lawyers.