Focus, Government, and Health Care

Deaf community lacks interpreters and support, advocates say

Suggestions include four-year interpreter training and incentives for businesses.

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Deaf community
Michigan has only about 500 registered and certified hearing and sign language interpreters, and 90 percent of those are self-employed. ©Thinkstockphoto.com

LANSING — Continued shortages of qualified interpreters and funding mean Michigan’s deaf, deafblind and hard of hearing residents lack access to proper communication and education, and many are unclear of their rights under state law, advocates say.

Michigan has a shortage of accessible mental health services, education, employment and legal services for these residents, said Todd Morrison, director of the Michigan Deaf Association.

About a million Michigan residents experience hearing loss, and about 90,000 identify as deaf. The majority consider themselves hard of hearing or later-deafened — meaning they were deafened after adolescence, having grown up as part of the hearing population, Morrison said.

But the state has only about 500 registered and certified hearing and sign language interpreters to assist this population. And 90 percent of those interpreters are self-employed, which means they can choose not to respond to emergency calls or work nights or weekends, Morrison said.

Further, Morrison said, the state Division on Deaf, Deafblind and Hard of Hearing is poorly structured, underfunded and understaffed.

“The division is allocated a budget of approximately $800,000 — this amounts to 91 cents operating cost per person,” he said by email. “The division has three staff who are tasked to support 1 million people. I cannot comprehend how anyone would be able to successfully manage that.”

The Division of Deaf, Deafblind and Hard of Hearing is a part of the Michigan Department of Civil Rights.

Matt Wesaw, the department’s executive director, said the whole department operates under a tight budget, which makes it hard to get the word out about its activities.

“I (am) convinced if we did a survey of people living in the state of Michigan, they wouldn’t know that we existed,” Wesaw said.

“People just don’t realize that if they feel they have been discriminated against, or if they have been treated unfairly and don’t have access to things they should have access to, they don’t know there is a place that they can go.”

Wesaw said the department has been trying to boost its visibility through increasing communications activity, but budget issues have slowed the process.

The lack of resources is contributing to diminishing services, including recent decisions by school districts to shut down related programs, Morrison said.

Morrison said closing these programs forces children to attend schools in their home districts without the educational tools to meet their needs. He said there are no justifiable reasons for this because the programs are key to helping children with hearing loss develop interpersonal skills and remain connected to the curriculum.

A new Michigan Legislative Caucus on Deaf, Deafblind and Hard of Hearing met for the first time in the spring, said Morrison. The caucus features legislators from both parties who will work together to address the issues facing the community, such as the program closures.

State officials also are working to ensure that people who are deaf, deafblind and hard of hearing understand what services they’re entitled to and that providers and interpreters understand their legal responsibilities, Anne Urasky, director of the Division on Deaf, Deafblind and Hard of Hearing, said in a statement provided by public relations staff.

The legislature took a long-awaited step last year by passing regulations required by the 2007 Deaf Person’s Interpreters Act, which spells out many rights and responsibilities between interpreters and their clients.

The regulations closed a number of loopholes by defining what it means for an interpreter to be qualified and requiring that interpreters be certified to translate in medical or legal situations where misunderstandings are more likely to occur.

The law also introduced a complaint and discipline process, allowing for licensing action to be taken against interpreters who violate these laws or the professional ethics code.

Wesaw said these rules are a good start, but he agreed there was more work to be done.

“The rules are structured so that a qualified interpreter must be used whenever possible, but they also recognize there will continue to be far too many instances where people’s rights to equal communication access will not be met,” Wesaw said.

Morrison said more needs to be done, not only to make interpreting a more attractive career choice but also to make Michigan a more attractive state to qualified interpreters.

Changing the interpreter training program into a four-year program, encouraging more training in the legal and medical fields, creating incentives for businesses to employ full-time interpreters, and introducing tax incentives could all help lure more interpreters to Michigan, Morrison said.

The first step, he said, would be for the legislature to increase funding for the Division on Deaf, Deafblind and Hard of Hearing.

“Michigan ranks in the top 10 states in regard to population hearing loss,” he said. “Legislators are completely oblivious to this statistic.”

Morrison said the caucus would work to improve legislators’ knowledge and awareness of the struggles facing the state’s deaf and hard of hearing residents.

The caucus is chaired by Rep. Martin Howrylak, a Republican from Troy, and Rep. Phil Phelps, a Democrat from Flushing.

Sen. David Robertson, R-Grand Blanc, and Sen. Marty Knollenberg, R-Troy, also are part of the caucus.

“We hope this is the first step in building a dynamic relationship with our legislators in pursuit of improving the quality of life for all individuals impacted with hearing loss in this state,” Morrison said.

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