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December 18, 2004

Hearing society crisis will drag on

From: Toronto Star, Canada - Dec 18, 2004


It could be well into the New Year before the deaf and hard-of-hearing communities have a chance to question the board of Ontario's biggest service provider about a bitter battle that could affect the way programs are delivered for years to come.

Trouble erupted at the Canadian Hearing Society last month when chairman Bryan Searle announced without warning that president and chief executive Kelly Duffin "is no longer an employee." When pressed for a reason, Searle would cite only "philosophical differences."

Since then, protesters supporting Duffin have picketed the society's headquarters on Spadina Rd., almost half of the group's board of directors have resigned and e-mails expressing outrage have been flying back and forth.

As this column went to press, there were still no firm answers. But one thing is clear: A house divided against itself cannot stand.

At this point, the hearing society, a not-for-profit group that supplies everything from hearing aids to sign-language interpreters, is in no danger whatsoever of collapse. "It's business as usual here," says vice-president Susan Main.

But Duffin's dismissal and the manner in which it was handled threaten the group's uncontested role as the main supplier of certain services for which it receives fees. And, in these days of fiscal belt-tightening, revenues from those fees are vital to the health of other important programs, such as employment and mental-health counselling.

In a letter to Searle, James Roots, executive director of the Canadian Association of the Deaf, a national research and advocacy group, says the dismissal of Duffin presents "a dire threat to the harmony" between the hearing association and other groups that represent deaf and hard-of-hearing consumers.

If Duffin is not reinstated, Roots says, "the consumer organizations will...undertake action to end the CHS's monopoly on service delivery in Ontario."

That sentiment is echoed in an open letter to Searle from Miguel Aguayo, executive director of the Ontario chapter of the Canadian Hard of Hearing Association, and Jennifer Jackson, executive director of the Ontario Association of the Deaf.

Saying: "...the abruptness of this termination and the subsequent resignation of eight CHS board members has produced a loss in the confidence that Ms. Duffin built during her tenure," Aguayo and Jackson serve notice that the board "has placed our organizations in a position to seriously consider asking the government of Ontario to move funding for services for deaf people and people with hearing loss to other non-profit organizations so that we can have confidence in the services that we receive."

The hearing society gets almost half its $28 million operating budget from the provincial government.

Duffin, 40, has an MBA from the University of Western Ontario and was vice-president of marketing and communications for publisher Random House Canada before being appointed in April, 2003, as president of the hearing society and its 480 employees.

After she had been 11 months on the job, the society reported a surplus of $835,288 for the fiscal year ended March 31, compared with a deficit of $979,964 the previous year.

Although she has no hearing loss, Duffin is fluent in American Sign Language and was welcomed as what one supporter calls "a breath of fresh air" at the society.

"Under her direction, the CHS has become more visible to the deaf community at large — and much more acceptable," supporter Dorothy Beam wrote in an open letter. Beam, an octogenarian, was among those picketing the hearing society's headquarters to protest Duffin's dismissal.

Insiders say differences of opinion over conflicts of interest are at the heart of the hearing society battle.

This spring, Duffin told the board she was involved in a personal relationship with Dean Walker, president of the Ontario Association of the Deaf. Some felt this was a conflict of interest.

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.

What does Duffin say? As previously reported in an interview last week, she's concerned that the absence of a CEO and the mass resignations will make 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."

Main says the hearing society is committed to holding an information meeting "so people can air their concerns." But that isn't likely to happen until the new year.

In the meantime, let's hope the battle doesn't derail efforts to move ahead in unison with policies that will help everyone coping with hearing loss.

Copyright Toronto Star Newspapers Limited.