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July 28, 2005

Cuts further threaten deaf services

From: Wausau Daily Herald, WI - Jul 28, 2005

By Jake Rigdon
Wausau Daily Herald

Regional sites of the Office for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing were told earlier this month that they would have to reduce money for supplies and services such as traveling, a move that could further isolate those in need of services, according to a local official.

The northern region office is located at the Women's Community in Wausau, but its lease runs out Aug. 23 and a new site has yet to be found. The office has been without a regional coordinator since an October hiring freeze, forcing the regional coordinators from the state's other four departments to share those duties.

Michelle Thurmaier, an assistant and sign language interpreter with the northern office, is concerned about the cuts to the office's travel budget.

"This is devastating for the deaf community here," she said. "None of the state's regional coordinators will be able to do anything except sit on their hands and wait for deaf residents to come to them." The northern office covers 17 counties - including Marathon, Lincoln, Portage and Wood counties - and assists about 300 deaf or hard-of-hearing residents.

Thurmaier is handling all duties that don't require the help of a regional coordinator. She said the department may end up moving to Stevens Point, meaning deaf residents who live in places such as Rhinelander would have even farther to travel.

Linda Huffer, director of the Office for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing in Madison, is on vacation and was unavailable for comment. Jason Altmann, the southeastern regional coordinator for the Office for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, referred questions to Huffer.

The regional coordinators explain to businesses and state agencies how to comply with federal laws when it comes to deaf or hard-of-hearing people. They also explain to hospitals, police departments and fire departments how to handle emergency situations with deaf people, and what is required of them by law.

The office maintains a list of interpreters, answers questions about things such as job applications and maintains a comprehensive directory of deaf-related resources.

"If a deaf person is having a problem with their employer, do you really think the employer is going to come to our office?" Thurmaier said. "I'm just sad. This is breaking my heart."
The Office for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing is under the aegis of the Department of Health and Family Services. Stephanie Marquis, spokeswoman for the Department of Health and Family Services, was unavailable for comment Wednesday.

Copyright © 2005 Wausau Daily Herald