Monday, March 29, 2010

Center on Hearing and Deafness in Pennsylvania loses director, most of its staff, amid conflict

From The Philadelphia Inquirer:

Despite simultaneous signing, speaking, and texting, miscommunication dominated a recent community meeting on the future of an agency serving the deaf and hard of hearing in Philadelphia's western suburbs.

After 14 years of providing a lifeline to this community, the Center on Hearing and Deafness (CHAD) in West Chester is without a permanent director, and most of its staff has quit, putting its services on hold.

Meanwhile, some members of the deaf community are raising questions about the board's understanding of their issues, even as board members profess their commitment to the organization.

Board members at the March 21 meeting told the deaf and their advocates that classes in adult literacy, social rehab, and American sign language (ASL) would continue.

Board president Thomas M. Gresko, who was not present, said later that services had been "temporarily suspended" and would resume as vacancies were filled.

For now, workers are not making house calls to assist deaf and developmentally challenged individuals with independent-living skills, such as doing laundry. Nor are they giving technical aid to the hard of hearing.

The center's offices, on West Market Street, near the Chester County Justice Center, are closed more often than not, the phones largely unanswered.

"It's leaving a big hole," said Lee Willis, a meeting participant who sought help from CHAD a few years ago for her 4-year-old's cochlear implant. "That's why so many people were so upset."

Gresko said the center was rebounding from the "mass resignations" and had received "an overwhelming response" to its job openings.

Former staffers said frustration over the divide that could often separate the hearing and deaf worlds prompted the exodus.

Dissension surfaced in December with the exit of Bill Lockard, the cofounder and longtime executive director. It escalated with the January appointment of an interim director who cannot sign and had difficulty communicating with some staffers, half of whom are deaf.

Since then, ramped-up rhetoric on both sides has fueled debate about whether non-deaf board members should control the agency's fate.

Jami N. Fisher, the program coordinator for ASL at the University of Pennsylvania's Language Center, said this kind of power struggle "happens all the time" in the deaf community.

Most notably, Gallaudet University in Washington was the setting for the 1988 protest "Deaf President Now" over school leadership.

"There are so many reasons why deaf people need to be part of any decision-making process that involves them," Fisher said.

Barbara White, a Gallaudet professor of social work, said that, after the protest, most American organizations serving people with hearing loss began adopting the practice of naming a chief executive officer and 51 percent of board members who were deaf or hard of hearing.

"Communication and empowerment of employees and clients is the key" to a program's viability, White said.

Gresko, a program development manager for an environmental services company, said he agreed. He said CHAD's nine-member volunteer board had aligned itself with the Deaf Hearing Communication Centre in Swarthmore as an advisory group. It is working hard, he said, to find an executive director proficient in ASL and add deaf representation to the board.

"We're doing the best we can," Gresko said, adding that Lockard did not seem to understand that "the executive director does not run the agency - the board runs it."

Gresko, a board member for four years, said the board had met with donors, including several foundations, to assure them of the board's allegiance to CHAD's mission. It has also interacted with private and government groups that contract with CHAD.

Concerns about the agency's finances have prompted consideration of "a forensic audit," Gresko said, adding that some information could not be shared.

Federal tax records show that the nonprofit had gross receipts of about $250,000 in 2008 and paid $162,000 in salaries.

"The board feels confident we can move forward," Gresko said. "We just need to clean up and assure ourselves that things were done properly."

Lockard, who made about $45,000 a year, according to the records, said he was unaware of any monetary problems, other than the reduced funding most nonprofit groups have endured.

"I stand by my record and believe the repeated renewal of multiple contracts and grants, all supported by audits, is a pretty good track record for a very small agency," he said.

Lockard said CHAD served more than 340 people in 2009 and had contact with several hundred more.

Pennsylvania has about 48,500 deaf residents, according to a spokeswoman for the Office of Deaf and Hard of Hearing, within the state Labor Department. More than 500,000 may be hard of hearing.

Lockard said he offered his resignation in December after several months of friction with the board. Then, fearing the agency would fold, he withdrew it. His attempts at "reconciliation, mediation, and joint planning" were rejected, he said.

Gresko said Lockard declined the offer of another job at CHAD.

Some who have worked with CHAD say it is difficult to imagine the center without Lockard and his wife, Beth, another ex-employee who is pastor of Christ the King Deaf Church in West Chester.

Bill Lockard said they met in 1981, when he worked at the Pennsylvania School for the Deaf in Philadelphia and she did a teaching internship there. He mastered ASL, often interpreting for his wife, deaf since childhood from spinal meningitis.

Together, they sought to reduce barriers experienced by the hard of hearing, such as obtaining a job or navigating a doctor's office. CHAD began in 1994, continuing work the Lockards had been doing from their basement.

Ruth E. Kranz-Carl, director of Chester County's Human Services Department, said the center had done a good job of meeting the needs of the deaf and teaching others about the deaf culture.

"We'd like to see this resolved," she said.

Chester County has contracted with CHAD for about eight years to serve residents who are deaf and mentally ill - a relationship now in a "holding pattern," she said.

"CHAD has provided valuable programs and services," said Gail Bober, who heads the Center for Community and Professional Services at the Pennsylvania School for the Deaf. "It would be a crime if the agency closed."

Lockard, who is fighting the board's challenge to his unemployment claim, says he and his wife will continue to help those who contact them. They worry about those who find CHAD's doors locked.

On Wednesday night, after Chester County Hospital staff called him, Lockard spent six hours in the emergency room with a deaf and developmentally challenged man who thought he had had a stroke.

The next afternoon, his wife helped Lab Mel, 46, a deaf Cambodian immigrant with poor reading skills, fill out her census form.

At the March 21 meeting, many in the audience asked why the staff had been shut out of decisions and why the board had not reached out to the Lockards. Attempts by board members to allay concerns only intensified them.

One board member, a business owner, unwittingly raised hackles when he suggested that the deaf community needed hearing people to raise money.

Another, an audiologist, said she planned to run one of CHAD's weekly social groups temporarily.

But when asked about her signing skills, her brief demo elicited groans. "They're not very good," she admitted.

The conflict angers Michele Krech, a social worker who learned ASL at CHAD.

It's "like a family," she said, "one that's been completely ripped apart."