Thursday, February 17, 2011

For deaf people, finding alcohol, drug treatment in sign language a challenge

From the Detroit Free Press:

In 2008, facing an uncertain future after a string of layoffs, Richie Najor (pictured), 41, slipped into alcohol and drugs. A year and a half later, after a binge in his parents' West Bloomfield garage, he was disgusted that his tolerance was too high to even get a buzz.

It was time to get help.

"I felt like a failure. I felt stuck. I lost faith in myself," Najor said -- in sign language.

Najor was born deaf, and because there are only a few local therapists and counselors trained in American Sign Language and funding for treatment programs is dwindling, he had few options.

There are about 655,500 deaf and hard-of-hearing people in Michigan, according to the Michigan Department of Community Health, and experts say the prevalence of alcohol abuse is similar to that of the hearing community. Close to one in five Michiganders ages 12 and older said they have binged on alcohol once in a 30-day period, according to a 2009 MDCH report. Thousands of them may have hearing problems.

"Treatment for deaf people takes longer, sometimes years," said June Walatkiewicz, a hearing therapist who is fluent in American Sign Language and works at Beaumont Hospital's clinic in Berkley.

Without an interpreter, 12-step programs are hard to follow, she said. Group counseling sessions among hearing people are difficult, even for the best lip-readers. Communicating with a hearing counselor who has no sign language skills is often a dead end, and insurance doesn't always cover the expense of an interpreter, she said.

Without professionals who can sign and understand deaf culture and mental health issues, she said, staying on the wagon is a daily challenge for deaf and hard-of-hearing people.

And unlike Najor, many deaf people were born with developmental delays. About 80% of the deaf people in Michigan are unemployed and on disability, Walatkiewicz said.

"It's easy to fall into using inappropriate drugs and alcohol," she said. "There's loneliness and isolation, and you become impressionable."

Najor went to a Salvation Army residential treatment center in Monroe, the only such program in the area for deaf and hard-of-hearing people. Started in 1990, the program calls for approximately six to eight weeks of group and individual therapy and treatment.

Renee Shaw, site administrator, said the Salvation Army treated 16 people last year.

"One of our biggest obstacles is that people come in with very different ways of communicating," she said, such as familial signs, lip-reading or closed-captioning.

Shaw said another obstacle is sending people back to their communities, where they'll often have no one who can follow up with them. Najor grew up in a verbal family and speaks. He has cochlear implants, so he can hear, but less than the average hearing person.

Najor found he had little camaraderie with other deaf people in the program -- being deaf was all they had in common, he said. He decided to seek treatment one on one. With Walatkiewicz, he works through his cravings, the feelings that led him to drugs and alcohol and the occasional fall off the wagon.

In 2009, Najor started a sales job at the Apple store at the Somerset Collection in Troy. Deaf customers flock to him.

He would like to be more involved in daily meetings, where he has no interpreter, but for now, he's happy to be working, to be around people and to be on top of his treatment.

"I'm trying to find a good group of people," he said, referring to friends who don't use. "I'm just happy I'm not out in the street, or going to jail, or dead. "