Deaf, blind encounter higher barriers to addiction treatment
BOSTON >> Marie Hoffmeister said she has been searching for weeks for a detox unit or substance abuse treatment facility that will help her overcome addiction and become sober. But there's been one major roadblock in her attempts to seek help: Hoffmeister is deafblind.
"I've struggled and fought for weeks and weeks, and they said, 'Well we can't serve you, we can't find interpreters for you, you won't have communication access,' and it's been extremely frustrating," Hoffmeister told the News Service through an interpreter. "It's time to change, it has to be time to change. People want to come back from this, but they can't. There's nowhere for them to go because there's no communication access."
Hoffmeister was among hundreds of people who gathered on Boston Common on Wednesday to raise awareness and increase political pressure to address the needs of deaf, deafblind and hard of hearing individuals. Wednesday's event, sponsored by the Deaf Grassroots Movement of Massachusetts, is part of a national effort to bring attention to issues in the deaf community.
Hoffmeister said she's been working with Tabatha Patrican, a deaf woman who has been in recovery for more than a year, to try to find a treatment facility that can meet her needs.
"For three weeks we've gone through interviews, the paperwork process, what if she died tomorrow? The state would be responsible for her death if that were to happen," Patrican said through an interpreter. "We need to have money provided for halfway houses, for trainers, for interpreters. They need to understand we're at risk, we're in danger, we need support, we need guidelines for this."
The Massachusetts Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing (MCDHH) said that it spends approximately $350,000 annually to ensure individuals have access to meetings, day treatment, and other services with American Sign Language interpreters or Communication Access Realtime Translation (CART) support.
"We have partnered with the Department of Public Health to bolster our efforts for opioid-related supports and will continue to work to make sure there is equal access ... for every individual who is seeking treatment," Aurora Wilber, spokesperson for MCDHH, said in a statement. "We are also pursuing initiatives in five key areas aimed at improving coordination of treatment, increasing technology to aid in communication, education and training programs in response to our population's needs."
During fiscal 2015, MCDHH provided 6,389 hours of ASL interpreting and CART services in substance abuse settings in response to 3,427 service requests, the commission said. The commission is also implementing a program to train deaf peer supports to use Narcan, an opioid overdose reversal drug.
Patrican said detox centers have told her they don't accept deaf or deafblind patients and even walking into facilities asking for help has not worked. When an addict is ready to get help, Patrican said, it's imperative that treatment starts quickly, before the addict could change their mind and continue to use.
"Hearing people can walk in and immediately have services, but for deaf people there is always a delay," Patrican said. "I've lost two deaf people from drugs. And they died because there was no treatment available to them."
Eveleen Cunningham, a licensed alcohol and substance abuse counselor who has been in recovery for more than 30 years, said there is a high rate of relapse among deaf individuals in recovery because they don't have complete access to the same kinds of treatment and support programs that hearing individuals have.
Despite Beacon Hill's laser-like focus on the opioid epidemic, Cunningham said the deaf community has largely been forgotten because "there isn't enough advocacy to increase services and there isn't a focus on addressing deaf services for people who are in recovery."
"Gov. (Charlie) Baker has funded a lot for opioid treatment and addiction recovery, but nothing specifically for deaf individuals that would be available around the clock," Cunningham said through an interpreter. "We need funding, we need treatment options that focus on the continuum of services for substance abuse, including 12-step programs adapted for deaf individuals so they can understand and access it."
In the mid-1980s, Cunningham, who is deaf, sought help for her own addiction. She said she had to fight to get into a treatment program and then had to teach the counselors there some rudimentary sign language so they could work with her. Since then, she has worked with and mentored deaf individuals starting their own recovery.
"The system has improved a little bit since my time, but not significantly," Cunningham said. "There's all kinds of treatment centers in Massachusetts, but if a deaf person shows up when they're ready to accept treatment, it's never available on demand like it is for hearing individuals."
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