'Be Willing To Engage': New Vt. Director On Serving Deaf, Hard Of Hearing & DeafBlind Community
In 2016, the Vermont Legislature passed a bill creating the Deaf, Hard of Hearing and DeafBlind Advisory Council. Now the state has acted on one of the council's key recommendations: hiring someone to be a single point of contact for the estimated 70,000 to 100,000 Vermonters who are Deaf or Hard of Hearing.
VPR’s Mitch Wertlieb spoke with Laura Siegel, who was hired at the end of March as the new director of Deaf, Hard of Hearing, and DeafBlind Services for Vermont’s Department of Disabilities, Aging & Independent Living. American Sign Language interpreter Karen Todd facilitated the conversation via Vancro, which has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Mitch Wertlieb: So part of your job is to collaborate with stakeholders and identify the systemic needs of all Deaf, Hard of Hearing and DeafBlind Vermonters. What are some of the biggest needs that have been unmet in the past?
Laura Siegel: Hearing people are unaware it is an [Americans With Disabilities Act] requirement to provide accessibility for Deaf, Hard of Hearing, DeafBlind people. It is quite possible they are unaware of the available resources here in our state. It is my job to point them into the right direction.
"There needs to be clear indication of which COVID and vaccination sites has accommodation [for Deaf, Hard of Hearing or DeafBlind residents] so such folks are aware and able to go to such places. For instance, folks are unaware that Walgreens and Kinney Drug stores do not have the accommodations like the state-run sites." — Laura Siegel, Deaf, Hard of Hearing, and DeafBlind Services Director
More from VPR: COVID-19 Raises Health Concerns For Vermonters With Disabilities, Older People [April 2020]
This is a challenge for the community, even in normal times. I'm wondering how the COVID-19 pandemic has perhaps brought about some unique challenges for the Hard of Hearing community in Vermont?
Hearing people continue to speak, even after a Deaf, Hard of Hearing, DeafBlind person tells them they are unable to hear. And that shows some resistance on their part. It is crucial for them to be willing to be creative with their communication methods, by writing things down, by wearing clear masks, by using speech-to-text apps, and so forth.
There needs to be clear indication of which COVID and vaccination sites has accommodation [for Deaf, Hard of Hearing or DeafBlind residents] so such folks are aware and able to go to such places. For instance, folks are unaware that Walgreens and Kinney Drug stores do not have the accommodations like the state-run sites.
Hearing loss affects older people to a far greater extent than younger people. And of course, Vermont has a large elderly population. What are the strategies you hope to bring to reach this aging population and get them the resources that they need? I imagine that that is going to be a big challenge.
As a person with bilateral severe to profound hearing loss, I can sympathize and understand their dilemma, because they may be unaware of the challenges they will face down the road. That older Vermonter population might be facing fear, with uncertainty and isolation. It is very possible they would not know how to deal with it, or how to cope with it.
For instance, the hearing aid bill [H.266 and S.132, to extend health insurance coverage for hearing aids] was intended to help the Hard of Hearing community. It's currently in the legislative session, but I feel many people are unaware of this happening.
Laura, I know that the Austine School in Brattleboro, which shut down in 2014, was really, it was a big blow to the Hard of Hearing community in Vermont. What kind of progress has been made for this community since then?
Austine’s closure led many community members from the Deaf community to leave the state, because they felt they were not being supported. Nine East Network [a K-12 educational services unit serving more than 400 school-age students with hearing loss across Vermont] was placed by the state, with the intention of providing better support for the children. Not all of the schools use their services. It is my understanding not every school is consolidating their work effort and resources for these children.
More from VPR: Austine Closing Reveals Debate Over 'Mainstreaming' Deaf Students [September 2014]
What are some ways that people can help people who are Deaf or Hard of Hearing as neighbors in our community? Things we can all do to support this community?
I would always say, do not be afraid to approach them. Be willing to engage with them, be willing to accommodate and become welcoming, so they feel more inclusive and part of the surrounding community.
And most of all, be patient.
Correction 12:25 p.m. 4/14/21: This story has been updated with capitalized formatting for the Deaf, Hard of Hearing and DeafBlind community. We have also removed the slash between DeafBlind.
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