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October 17, 2002

She listens to those who can't hear

From: West Roxbury Transcript, MA
Oct. 17, 2002

By Craig M. Douglas / Staff Writer
Thursday, October 17, 2002

West Roxbury woman named head of commission for deaf, hard of hearing

Imagine the responsibility of taking over a state agency with a $5 million operating budget, a staff of 63 people and offices in Boston, Springfield, Worcester and Plymouth. Now imagine that, one month into the job, you are faced with a 20 percent cut in your budget, have nine fewer staff members and are still required to stay on top of an ever-changing technological environment.

And did we mention that one-third of your employees - approximately 21 people - are either deaf or hard-of-hearing?

Welcome to the life of Heidi Reed of West Roxbury, who was appointed on Sept. 3 by acting Gov. Jane Swift to head the Massachusetts Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing.

Aimed to promote, provide and coordinate public policy for the deaf and hard-of-hearing, the commission is part of the state's Department of Health and Human Services. It's mandate is to provide a voice for the hearing-impaired in the commonwealth and make their lives a little better.

Worst to come?

The commission faced a stagnant economy before Reed arrived, but she pledged it will continue on its mission, despite the threat of additional cuts.

"Everyone is very concerned," said Reed in an interview last week. "We're trying to manage our resources as closely as possible.

"Given the hard times we're in, my goal is to simply guarantee services needed for support," she continued. "That's really our No. 1 responsibility: to ensure access to supports in our communities."

With one month already under her belt, Reed has great confidence in the commission's staff and she is encouraged by its familiarity with recent innovations and technological breakthroughs designed for people with hearing loss.

Reed also has been pleasantly surprised by the state's emphasis to improve hearing and communication services available throughout the commonwealth.

As more hearing-impaired people move into mainstream schools and jobs, the demand for sign-language interpreters and visually-based communications will continue to grow - a situation that should keep her and the commission busy for the foreseeable future, according to Reed.

"Right now, we're seeing a lot of programs for visual communication, video-relay services and interpreter services being developed," said Reed, who holds a master's degree in counseling from Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C. and a bachelor's degree in English from William Smith College in upstate New York.

Done this before

Prior to joining the commission, Reed worked as an executive director for D.E.A.F. Inc., an organization that helps hearing-impaired men, women and children lead independent lives.

"We know the services of skilled interpreters are in high demand, and so we're seeing a lot of breakthroughs with video conferencing and computer-based programs," she said. "Through those technologies, we're now able to target a wide spectrum of people: children, seniors, working individuals. Our abilities to address the needs of the deaf and hard-of-hearing are constantly growing."

Born in Norwood, raised in Mansfield and having spent her adolescence in New York, Reed is a self-described Massachusetts-New Yorker who, at a very young age, experienced hearing loss firsthand. While the direct cause of her deafness has never been determined, Reed said it was likely the result of taking too strong antibiotics.

"Today, we know a high dosage can cause hearing loss. Back then, we didn't," she said. "I was around one-and-a-half at the time."

As a result, Reed said she is uniquely suited for the job. On the one hand, she fully understands the need for increased services throughout the state. On the other hand, she sympathizes with people who are confused by the actions and responses of the hearing impaired.

Few know she's deaf

Overall, she said she appreciates the ways in which communication can be improved for everyone in society.

"If someone sees me walking down the street, it would be very easy to misunderstand my responses to certain situations," she said. "Very few people would actually think that I or someone else was experiencing hearing loss. There is tremendous room for improved awareness and communication."

Given her upbringing, the 50-year-old Reed, who answered the Transcript's questions through an interpreter, said she still identifies herself as a true New Englander. "You can count me as a Red Sox fan," she said.

With a growing percentage of the state's population fluent in languages other than English, Reed said the commission's communication policy will need to be flexible.

According to Reed, approximately 10 percent of the state's population is deaf or hard of hearing, and for each nationality, she said there is generally a corresponding version of sign language. As a result, Reed said the commission's challenges are no different than the ones being faced in the state's public schools, hospitals and social service providers.

"It's the same as if you had one person speaking Spanish and the other speaking German," she said. "They're two, separate communication modes. American sign-language differs from French sign-language, which differs from Spanish."

Opening doors

As part of her ongoing orientation, Reed said she will host an open house on Nov. 7 in the MCDHH's headquarters at 150 Mount Vernon St.. With a number of tours and exhibits planned, Reed said she's looking forward to meeting the families and friends of people who benefit from the commission's services, or have an interest in the department's programs. The open house is scheduled to run between 2 p.m. and 7 p.m.

Craig Douglas can be reached at

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