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Connecticut establishes new bureau for deaf, deafblind and hard of hearing services

Connecticut created a bureau for deaf, deafblind and hard of hearing services that's slated to launch in July. The bureau will fall under the Department of Aging and Disability Services. The creation of the bureau was part of a larger bill focused on allocating American Rescue Plan funding that passed during the state's recent legislative session.
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Connecticut created a bureau for deaf, deafblind and hard of hearing services that's slated to launch in July. The bureau will fall under the Department of Aging and Disability Services. The creation of the bureau was part of a larger bill focused on allocating American Rescue Plan funding that passed during the state's recent legislative session.

Connecticut will launch a new bureau for deaf, deafblind and hard of hearing services to better serve the community after lawmakers approved the proposal earlier this year.

The bureau will fall under the Department of Aging and Disability Services, and will field calls, provide referrals and coordinate trainings for interpreters, state employees and the public.

Speaker of the Connecticut House of Representatives Matt Ritter said establishing the office was a priority to ensure compliance with state and federal laws.

"The feeling is if you have one person whose sole job and focus it is to inform institutions about their requirements and duties ... you're going to get better treatment, better care, particularly [in] the health care segment," Ritter said.

The next steps include hiring a director for the bureau, which must happen by October.

"They need to find the right person who has the background and experience to sort of be the liaison between the deaf and hard of hearing community and the relevant state agencies," Ritter said.

The creation of the bureau was part of a larger bill focused on allocating federal American Rescue Plan Act funding, which passed during the state's recent legislative session.

The law establishes a new Bureau of Services for Persons Who Are Deaf, Deafblind or Hard of Hearing. The duties of the bureau's director will include publishing an online resource guide, assisting to register interpreters in the state and helping state agencies appoint an employee who will be a point of contact for concerns related to people who are deaf, deafblind or hard of hearing.

The director will also promote public education through initiatives such as offering training for public safety and public health officials, encouraging television stations in Connecticut to make television broadcasts more accessible, and coordinating with civic and community organizations to provide workshops and information regarding laws and regulations.

Members of the deaf, deafblind and hard of hearing community have experienced a gap in services since a similar office, the Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, closed in 2016 due to funding challenges.

In a previous interview, Ritter told Connecticut Public he heard from many members of the community who emphasized the need for the new bureau.

“There has been widespread frustration from individuals who have reached out to their reps," Ritter said. "And I think it got louder over the last year."

Advocates say when looking for sign language interpreters and other services, they've had nowhere to turn, particularly in the health care setting.

The Connecticut Hospital Association and the American School for the Deaf are working to change that. From March through May they ran an interpreter pilot program at six participating hospitals in the state.

“We're looking forward over the next few weeks to putting together all the numbers and being able to look and see how we can really identify where the gaps are," American School for the Deaf Executive Director Jeff Bravin signed.

The pilot program had interpreters available during peak hours for anyone who requested one. Bravin said not as many people requested interpreters as they expected.

"Those six hospitals that signed on with us for the pilot program, many of them are in very remote areas of the state and potentially don't have many deaf individuals living in those areas," Bravin signed.

Now all of the hospitals that were part of the program have contracts with the American School for the Deaf so they can utilize their interpreter services.

Other hospitals in the state have contracts with other interpreting agencies and sometimes patients are unable to communicate with hospital staff when interpreters are unavailable.

Some hospitals also rely on video remote interpreting, or VRI, a service that allows patients to interact with a live interpreter via video calls on a tablet computer. But these services don’t work well for everyone.

According to a recent report that identified the most pressing needs of the Connecticut Deaf, DeafBlind and Hard of Hearing community, 93% of survey participants said VRI shouldn't be used in health care settings, or used only as a last resort.

One reason is that sign language is three-dimensional, meaning it makes use of body language and physical space. It's more difficult to understand by looking at a screen.

Deaf advocates and residents interviewed by Connecticut Public said spotty internet service at hospitals has also presented problems. Weak connections can cause screens to freeze up while an interpreter is signing.

In addition to making interpreters more widely available, the American School for the Deaf is working on a training video that will soon be released to staff at hospitals across the state to educate them on how to interact with this community.

Bria Lloyd joined Connecticut Public as an investigative reporter for The Accountability Project in November 2022. She’s also the co-host of the station’s limited series podcast, 'In Absentia'.

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