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Changes prompt deaf residents to sound off


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POSTED: Saturday, September 12, 2009

Deaf residents spoke out with signs such as “;DHS (Department of Human Services) Needs to Hear the Deaf”; and “;Deaf Yes, Silent No Way.”;

About 50 members of the deaf community rallied and appeared at a legislative informational hearing yesterday at the state Capitol to express anger and dismay over changes in the Deaf Services Section of the Vocational Rehabilitation and Services for the Blind Division. The program services 244 deaf people.

Igniting the furor was the proposed termination of Ele MacDonald in cost-cutting work force reductions Nov. 14 because of the unprecedented state deficit. MacDonald has been supervisor of the deaf services section since it began in 1997, and she handles more than 170 cases.

The deaf community also is distressed about the relocation of the Deaf Services Section from 707 Richards St. to 600 Kapiolani Blvd. where other vocational rehabilitation sections are located.

Susan Foard, division assistant administrator, had some good news for those at the rally. She said MacDonald will move into another supervisory position and continue to work with the Deaf Services Section.

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The section has one counselor with American Sign Language skills, and another will be added who will work with hard-of-hearing clients rather than deaf clients until trained in sign language, she said.

Deaf citizens said in a flurry of e-mails the past few days that positions were being cut in the section they had fought to get for more than two decades.

Foard said the section has nine positions but is down to four staff members—the supervisor, one counselor, an aide and a secretary—because of vacancies.

She said the department's Oahu branch has six sections that will be combined to four. One will be the Deaf Services Section, which will have its own entrance, reception area, conference room and kitchen at the new location, she said.

Also housed in the office will be the Oahu branch administrator, secretary and an employment specialist, who can provide on-site assistance to the Deaf Services Section, she said.

Art Frank, chairman of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Advisory Board, said he was “;frustrated and angry”; because the deaf community fought 20 to 25 years to get the services they now have, and the vocational rehabilitation division was making major changes without consulting the advisory board. “;What the hell are we around for anyway?”;

Signing with an interpreter, Francine Kenyon, vice chairwoman of the advisory board, told legislators, “;For over 20 years we have worked diligently to obtain services equal to individuals who are blind.

“;It is very important for Department of Human Services to provide effective and efficient direct services to deaf, hard-of-hearing and deaf-blind people in the state because we have special communication needs that impact how services are provided to us.”;

“;On their behalf, we're glad to see them organizing and getting together,”; Foard said. “;It's one thing we teach them, and communication is difficult.”;

The House and Senate Human Services and Health committees held the information briefing to learn what the Human Services and Health departments are doing to cut costs and how public services—such as the Deaf Services Section—will be affected by proposed staff and program reductions.

Human Services Director Lillian Koller and Deputy Health Director Susan Jackson described proposed November reduction-in-force layoffs—366 in the Human Services Department and 319 in the Health Department. Their agencies are hard hit because they have some of the largest amounts of state funds.

Koller said she is not aware of any service being dropped—“;We are going to maintain.”; But she added, “;There is no question there is going to be an impact. You can't take $3 billion out of the state budget and not have an impact.”;

Jackson said there is no way of knowing what the potential savings and impact will be until the process is completed.

House Health Chairman Ryan Yamane (D, Waipahu-Mililani) said, “;We're not here to criticize everything that's been done. We're trying to understand,”; he said, pointing out “;there is a lot of anxiety in the community.”;