Maryland deaf citizens may get office for deaf/hard of hearing

Originally appeared in Silent News, May 2001.

Located so close to such famed civil rights events such as Deaf President Now and the passage of Americans with Disabilities Act, one would think that the state of Maryland would be a leader in achieving a program that promotes a high level of awareness about deaf and hard of hearing issues.

Think again. Maryland is one of the remaining states that does not have a commission or office serving deaf and hard of hearing people. This is almost a cruel twist of irony, considering how close to Washington, D.C. and Gallaudet University Maryland is.

The Maryland Association of the Deaf (MDAD) has been working closely with Maryland deaf residents and advocates for the passage of Senate Bill 407/House Bill 1187, which proposes the establishment of an Office for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing (ODHH). SB 407 passed unanimously on March 9 in the Senate, 45-0, and passed again in the House on March 29, 126-5.

MDAD President Astrid Goodstein said, “Both SB 407 and its companion bill HB 1187 have cleared both chambers – the Senate and the House – with some amendments to strengthen the bill. The amendments include the addition of an advisory council including members of different state departments and agencies and the Maryland School for the Deaf. I think this amendment is excellent as it ensures representation from the state agencies and better collaboration, networking and ‘partnering’ among them.”

The state of Maryland has made recommendations and performed several state-commissioned studies on this possibility, dating as far back as 1966. In 1979, the governor’s office recommended the establishment of an office after a study showed that issues were routinely ignored by the state. A document presented to the current governor’s office by Goodstein on behalf of MDAD stated, “It is astonishing to see that in the year 2000 the state of Maryland has yet to address numerous issues which were identified more than thirty years ago.”

Bea Rodgers of the Governor’s Office of Individuals with Disabilities (OID) said, “While we are not in a position to speak to why previous administrations have chosen not to establish a separate office, we believe this was not needed at the current time. Many of the states to which Maryland was being compared has service provisions as one of their key functions, resulting in annual budgets from $1 million to over $6 million. Offices in the Executive Branch of Maryland state government are traditionally not service providers. In most instances, service provision is best provided at the local level, closest to where the customer is.”

Delegate James Hubbard’s office disagreed, saying, “The proposed office to serve people who are hard of hearing or deaf is a very worthwhile endeavor. Currently, more than 60% of the people who contact the Governor’s OID for assistance are hard of hearing/deaf.”

A rally was held on March 2 in Annapolis, with signs proclaiming, “ODHH NOW!” Goodstein said, “[Fred Weiner, the master of ceremonies], brought a doughnut and showed it to the crowd. In his analogy, in the hole of the doughnut is Maryland surrounded by its neighboring states that have a central office or commission for the deaf and hard of hearing.”

This is reminiscent of Illinois’ many years of struggle to establish a commission. After a long battle, Illinois – which was also surrounded by states that already had a commission – passed a bill in 1997. The Illinois Deaf and Hard of Hearing Commission (IDHHC) opened its doors on Nov. 1, 1998, with Gerald Covell at its helm as director.

“I think it is great that Maryland [may have] one, but I am concerned as to its establishment and being assigned to the governor’s office as opposed to being an independent executive agency,” said Covell.

The rally brought appearances from Sen. Thomas Bromwell and Sen. Timothy Fergusen,  both  sponsors of SB 407. Bromwell is also chair of the Senate Finance Committee.

The only opposition comes from the Office of Individuals with Disabilities. OID’s Rodgers said “[We] have taken a position in opposition to both SB 407 and HB 1187 as being duplicative of the functions that it is currently mandated to handle.”

Rodgers continued, “We are concerned that a separate office for those who are deaf and hard of hearing will set a precedent that may result in the proliferation of other single-focused offices thereby undermining the overall need for coordination of the resources, services and expertise currently available. In addition, we are concerned that many of the problems…are service-related problems and will not be effectively addressed by the legislation as written and as a result of the accompanying fiscal note which does not provide for any service funding.” Rodgers also noted that OPD is defining services broadly to include interpreting services funding.

This poses a concern for Covell, who sent a letter of support to MDAD. “The way IDHHC is established now, we are 100 percent independent and accountable to the governor and legislators. We have more flexibility and the commission can decide what direction to go without anyone telling us one way or the other. If we are to be assigned to an agency we become part of their overall agency mission and budget with little independence,” he said.

Covell cited the Illinois School for the Deaf (ISD) as an example of how being part of an office can affect crucial decisions. “It is similar to ISD right now as they are assigned to the Department of Human Services [in Illinois] and the school has to struggle for their budget requests which is part of the bigger budget proposed by DHS,” states Covell. “Suppose DHS is requested to cut their budget by, let’s say six percent. Who gets the cuts? Programs such as ISD.”

Several community advocates testified in support of the bill on March 12. Wendy Cheng represented the Association of Late-Deafened Adults. Cheng, who lost her hearing in 1996, said, “In terms of information dissemination and referral, the existing OID does not provide quality, up-to-date information of interest to late-deafened individuals.” Cheng cited the example of her visiting the OID webpage in search of information about captioned live theatre in Maryland, which led her to another page for the Arts Access page. There was no TTY number listed, and the voice number had been disconnected when Cheng called via the relay service.

“In contrast, both Massachusetts and Virginia provide fact sheets for individuals dealing with various aspects of late-deafness,” Cheng said.

In addition, Cheng emphasized the importance of first impressions for people who may be calling the OID for initial information. “Also, the very experience of just requesting for information to OID was extremely painful. The person who answered my TTY call typed at the rate of 10 words per hour, and could not answer my question of whether OID had any information to help individuals adjust to late-deafness.”

She went on to say, “My understanding is that the receptionist is developmentally disabled, but quality customer service was compromised by having him placed in a position where the first impression can make or break a potential relationship between the late-deafened consumer and the state government.”

Three TTY calls made by Silent News to the OID resulted in hang-ups or slowly typed responses stating that the appropriate person was not available.

Delegate Joan Pitkin, one of the co-sponsors of HB 1187, said, “It is my view that Maryland is lagging behind other states in addressing the unique barriers presented to deaf and hard of hearing citizens, and the current structure of the Governor’s Office on Individuals with Disabilities does not adequately serve them – and [the OID] indeed has been historically focused on other disabilities which have received priority in attention and funding.”

Pitkin also referred to the deaf and hard of hearing community’s need for communication access rather than physical access. “They need inclusion, but on pertinent and logical terms to their type of disability,” she said.

Del. Hubbard added, “If thegovernor is creating an office for Smart Growth to protect land, he needs to create this office to protect the hard of hearing and deaf community – they are people.”

Pitkin agreed with Hubbard. “I will argue strongly to the governor that if he can find funding for a new Office of Smart Growth and a new Office of Women’s Health (a bill which did not even enjoy support from most of the women legislator – it was referred to committee and did not survive the legislative process), he can certainly find the funds to pay the start-up costs for this much needed office.”

In an e-mail response from the governor’s office, a staffer said when asked if the governor would sign the bill, “Governor Glendening is currently reviewing more than 1,000 new bills passed during the 2001 legislative session and will most likely sign most of the legislation. If upon careful review of the bill creating [the office] there are no unexpected issues with the legislation he is expected to sign the bill into law.”

Maryland has over 575,000 deaf and hard of hearing citizens. More information about MDAD and the bill may be found at www.mdad.org.

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