Friday, March 11, 2011

Deaf-blind advocates ask Massachusetts not to cut their services

From The AP:

Unable to see or hear, Jaimi Lard is proud of her ability to live independently.

But she is worried that state budget cuts could make life more difficult for her and others like her.

Lard was one of several deaf and blind people who with their advocates visited the Statehouse on March 9 to urge lawmakers to maintain funding for a program that provides specialized interpreters, transportation and other support for dozens of deaf and blind people and their families.

They want to restore $450,000 earmarked for the DeafBlind Community Access Network, cut by Gov. Deval Patrick in his proposed budget for the fiscal year starting July 1.

Lard, 36, communicates through tactile sign language, in which a deaf and blind person puts his or her hands over the hands of the signer and messages are conveyed through touch. It is not unlike what Helen Keller learned more than a century ago.

"The services are so critical to the deaf-blind community, so that we’re able to go out and participate whether it is in shopping, going to a workshop or attending fun events around Boston," Lard said in an interview through Christine Dwyer, her interpreter.

Lard lives in an apartment in Watertown and works as a goodwill ambassador, traveling to schools and civic organizations to discuss her life.

"I am able to share my story of a person living with deaf-blindness and provide that perspective, so that people see that my life is very much the same as theirs," she said.

Like Helen Keller, Lard as a child went to the Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown. The school has about 60 deaf-blind students and provides teachers for others in the community, said its president, Steven Rothstein, who attended the Statehouse event.

At the time Helen Keller came to Perkins, Rothstein said, her own father believed she could not be educated. But she was able to change attitudes.

"The people there today have the same possibilities, the same abilities, and they need to be given the same opportunity to contribute to society," Rothstein said.

Paulette Song, a spokeswoman for Executive Office of Health and Human Services, said in an e-mailed statement that "unprecedented fiscal challenges" forced the administration to make tough budgetary decisions.

"We are working hard to mitigate the impact of budget constraints on the deaf blind community and to ensure that direct services to the most vulnerable members of the community are preserved," Song said.

Patrick’s $30.5 billion spending plan calls for program cuts throughout state government to help bridge an estimated $1.5 billion budget gap.

There are 234 children in Massachusetts identified as deaf-blind, and 510 adults registered as deaf-blind with the state’s Commission for the Blind. Advocates say they believe those numbers are significantly underreported.

Many who are considered deaf-blind have some hearing and/or sight, but require more support than people who are only deaf or blind, advocates say.