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April 28, 2003

Budget cuts may limit funds for deaf

From: The Tennessean, TN - Apr 28, 2003

Staff Writer

Critical services that help residents who are deaf and hard of hearing communicate in emergencies, job interviews and other situations will be drastically cut under budget reductions ordered by Gov. Phil Bredesen, advocates say.

All six Tennessee deaf centers have received a letter saying that their state grants for interpreting services will be reduced from $150,000 to $50,000, effective July 1. The April 4 letter was from Carl Brown, assistant commissioner with the Department of Human Services.

But DHS Finance Director Jeff Roberts said Brown's letter paints a ''worst-case scenario'' and the cuts might not be that deep.

Les Hutchinson, chief executive officer and president of the League for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, which serves 16 Midstate counties, said the cuts will severely reduce access to some services.

''Our doors are now open 42 hours a week, which means that any time during those 42 hours, a deaf person could walk in the front door and ask for services. We are probably going to have to reduce that to about 15 hours a week.''

Hutchinson said he could not estimate how many deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals might be affected by the cuts.

''People walk into our door who are deaf and they need some help with a phone call, or they need help with a letter because for a deaf person who relies on American Sign Language that is a very different language from English in terms of grammar, syntax and so forth. English is a foreign language for most deaf people, particularly those who were deaf at birth or shortly thereafter.''

Hutchinson said DHS has provided confusing information about the cuts.

According to ''Discretionary Base Reductions,'' a document the Bredesen administration submitted to the legislature, the reductions were to be about $47,000 for all six centers combined, Hutchinson said.

The centers subsequently received the letter from Brown outlining cuts of $100,000 per center. Each letter includes this sentence: ''Your grant will be reduced to $50,000 for FY04.''

Roberts said the letter probably should have used the word ''may'' instead of ''will.''

The size of the cut will be determined by the amount left over after the state pays for federally mandated vocational rehabilitation programs, he said.

''In the event things turn out poorly for us as far as our costs on our obligated services, we would have to go to them (centers) and say, 'We don't have enough money for both. Client services are mandated by the feds. Your services, although they are great services, they are not mandated so the choice would be we would have to cut you.'''

Hutchinson said it is important for people to know that deaf people are very different from any other disability group.

''If you are blind or if you are crippled or in a wheelchair, or even mildly mentally retarded, you can communicate with 99% of the people in your environment in a somewhat effective way.

''If you are deaf, you are lucky to be able to communicate effectively with 1%. That interpreter plays a critical role in being able to be the go-between between a person who is deaf and a hearing person. Since the world is ruled by hearing people, it is really essential that the interpreter be able to be there.''

There are about 60,000 people in the state considered to be deaf or significantly hard of hearing, he said. About 16,000 live in the 16-county area his organization serves.

Hutchinson said some of the services his organization provides are billable services, meaning an employer is required to pay under the Americans with Disabilities Act, but many are not. ''That is where our state contract comes in.'' 

© Copyright 2003 The Tennessean