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December 7, 2004

CEO's dismissal creates crisis at hearing society

From: Toronto Star, Canada - Dec 7, 2004

Row exposes rift in deaf community

Who she was dating sparked removal


A bitter battle is tearing at the fabric of the Canadian Hearing Society, raising concerns for thousands of clients who rely on its services.

In the process, it is exposing deep divisions within the deaf and hard-of-hearing communities, pitting director against director, and diverting energy from vital programs that supply everything from hearing aids and sign-language interpreters to employment and mental-health counselling.

In the middle of it all are a man and woman from two different cultures — one deaf, one hearing — who met and started dating.

The story erupted a couple of weeks ago when, without warning or explanation, the chair of the not-for-profit society's board of directors announced that president and chief executive Kelly Duffin "is no longer an employee."

The news stunned staff and clients of the agency, and they launched a campaign demanding her reinstatement. Eight of the 19 board members resigned.

Duffin's supporters, including Dorothy Beam, a member of the Order of Ontario, have picketed outside the agency's headquarters on Spadina Rd. They have written letters of protest and demanded that the society's executive committee step down.

"For all the destruction the previous weeks have wrought, I think they have brought the community together in a way I haven't seen before," said Kristin Snodden, one of the directors who resigned in protest. "Every day I see people put aside petty differences and long-standing grudges to work together on our common goal."

Snodden is vice-president of the Ontario Association of the Deaf, an advocacy group for people who communicate with sign language and consider themselves a culture apart from the rest of society.

Although the group's advocacy undoubtedly helps the hearing society get funding for its operations, neither directly supplies the other with products or services. But when Duffin revealed that she was dating Dean Walker, the association's president, some directors of the hearing society took exception.

Duffin, who has no hearing loss but is fluent in sign language, is credited by staff at the hearing society with building bridges between the deaf and hard-of-hearing cultures. But some critics on the board felt the relationship with Walker was a conflict of interest, Snodden said.

Walker did not respond to questions from the Star.

Duffin's supporters say her detractors are merely trying to deflect criticism from their own conflicts of interest, which could have made them vulnerable under new policies introduced while she headed the hearing society.

In particular, they note that society vice-chair Lisa Thomas is president of Scicore, Inc., a company that sells hearing-aid batteries. Efforts to reach Thomas were unsuccessful.

The society, which concentrates its services in Ontario, gets almost half its $28 million operating budget from the provincial government. Other backers include the United Way.

In announcing Duffin's dismissal, board chair Bryan Searle, a Sudbury lawyer, cited "philosophical differences." He declined to elaborate.

"The board of directors and I were headed in different directions, and they felt those differences were irreconcilable," Duffin said in a letter to staff.

In an interview, she said she was aware of differences of opinion but was "surprised at the suddenness of the decision and the fact that there wasn't more room for discussion."

She added, "I think a prolonged stretch without a CEO for the second time in three years, combined now with the loss of almost half the board, makes the agency vulnerable. I hope the remaining board members will be able to work with related organizations, consumers, staff and funders to ensure that consumers don't suffer."

Duffin, 40, has an MBA from the University of Western Ontario and was vice president of marketing and communications for Random House Canada before taking over as society president in April, 2003.

'She had gone further to listen to our needs ... than her last two predecessors'

Miguel Aguayo and Jennifer Jackson

She said she started studying American Sign Language 11 years ago because "I had always thought it was a beautiful language." That gained her acceptance into another culture, but she "never dreamed at the time that my career and my hobby would coincide."

Duffin is not the first head of the society to have no hearing loss. Her signing fluency earned her respect, as did her business acumen. In the fiscal year ended March 31, the group, which has 480 employees, one-third of whom are hearing-impaired, enjoyed a surplus of $835,288, compared with a deficit of $979,964 the previous year.

But some fear the current troubles may tarnish the society's reputation with funders.

It was Duffin's vision and people skills that most endeared her to those who got to know her.

"Over the last 19 months, Ms Duffin made more progress in instilling a belief ... that the CHS is an organization that genuinely cares for consumers," Miguel Aguayo, president of the Ontario chapter of the Canadian Hard of Hearing Association, and Jennifer Jackson, executive director of the Ontario Association of the Deaf, wrote to Searle.

"She had gone further to listen to our needs and create partnerships with community stakeholders than her last two predecessors combined."

Searle said he was trying to arrange a meeting to address concerns but had trouble finding a date on which the necessary interpreters and captioning services would be available.

He said directors had hoped to speak to members following a board meeting last Saturday, but it was cancelled at the last moment when it became apparent a bigger venue would be needed.

Because of legal constraints, Searle said, he could not detail the reasons for the dismissal except to say, "We do not anticipate any change in programs."

Of the eight resignations from the board, he said three were for unrelated reasons.

But the way the dismissal was handled rankled many.

As Aguayo and Jackson wrote to Searle, "The abruptness of this termination and the subsequent resignation of CHS board members has produced a loss in the confidence that Ms Duffin built during her tenure."

The dismissal raised concerns about the society's stability and ability to provide services, they wrote, calling for transparency in decision-making.

"Barring this, we will unwaveringly advocate to end the CHS's virtual monopoly of services for deaf, deafened and people with hearing loss in Ontario."

Other letters are equally impassioned. One from the Ontario Association of Sign Language Interpreters said Duffin "did much to rebuild bridges and credibility" after the lack of trust that once existed between interpreters and the society.

"We have deep roots," said director of communications Susan Main. "We will survive."

But Bijaya Shrestha, designated spokesperson for the society's staff and consumers, said attitudes have to change.

"It has been several years since the CHS has had a CEO and president who has shown so much respect and knowledge of the very population that CHS serves," Shrestha wrote in an open letter to Searle.

Duffin said she was "touched and overwhelmed" by the support she has received. "To think of Dorothy Beam, who has earned the Order of Ontario for her eight decades of work on behalf of the deaf community, protesting out in the cold makes me laugh and cry at the same time."

Said Beam: "Friends kept me warm. CHS will lose a lot of credibility if Kelly Duffin does not return. She is the key to honesty."

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