BOSTON >> Advocates for deaf and hard of hearing individuals on Friday called the Legislature's attention to what they said are significant funding shortfalls that threaten their ability to communicate with others.
As legislators continue their work reviewing the $39.55 billion fiscal 2017 budget proposed by Gov. Charlie Baker, advocates told the House and Senate Ways and Means committees that cuts to the Massachusetts Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing have made life more difficult for deaf residents.
"I'm very concerned about the cuts at the Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing because it impacts a lot of deaf people in their daily lives. You can see there are a lot deaf people here, they've waited on case management services and other issues," Andrew Veith, president of the Massachusetts State Association of the Deaf, said through an interpreter. "Several years ago, I had to wait six weeks to get an interpreter at the hospital. I don't know if it was the fault of the commission or the fault of the hospital, I'm not sure, but I was left in the middle without an interpreter."
Baker's budget includes about $5.4 million in funding for the commission — roughly $230,000 less than what was budgeted for the current fiscal year — but Veith and others said the commission's budgetary appropriation is at least $2.5 million below where it should be. According to the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center, the commission budget has decreased by about 17 percent since fiscal 2009.
Adrian Reading, a Worcester resident, told lawmakers the story of a deaf friend who was hospitalized for three months, yet only had access to an interpreter certified in American Sign Language for fewer than 10 days. Without adequate funding, he argued, the Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing is not able to provide enough interpreters and educate service providers about their responsibility to provide them.
"There is a lack of education among service providers across the commonwealth around accessible communication access," Reading said through an interpreter. "Without those services, we are not getting services at all or minimal services, which means that businesses are actually losing money because they can't communicate with us."
The Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing estimates that 546,022 Massachusetts residents are deaf or hard of hearing and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimates that 8.6 percent of the nation's population older than 3 has a hearing problem.
Sen. Patricia Jehlen, who said she is hard of hearing, commended the deaf community for its lobbying effort and asked that advocates submit stories of times they or others have been denied services or otherwise negatively impacted by budget cuts.
"I had no idea these cuts have been so dramatic because they've happened over several years so that this year's cut is on top of many others," the Somerville Democrat said. "I think this is a group of people whose voices have not been heard and I commend you for being organized and articulate this year."