Deaf, deafblind issues met a mixed fate

by Beth Fraser and John Wodele

When the Minnesota Legislature concluded its 2016 session at midnight on May 23, three measures addressing issues of concern to deaf, deafblind or hard of hearing Minnesotans were
passed into law. Two other bills advanced but came up just short.

The first bill addresses a significant concern of parents of deaf, deafblind or hard of hearing children who were limited in their ability to choose the best Pre-K school for their children’s educational development. New legislation was passed giving families the right to choose the best school for their children’s educational needs. Parents who wished to send their children to the Metro Deaf School, a public charter school with the only Pre-K program in the metro area offering immersion in American Sign Language (ASL), were refused the option by some school districts. The new law recognizes several important factors. One is that critical language development takes place between birth and age 5. Another is that for many children who are deaf, deafblind and hard of hearing, the language they need to be exposed to and to learn during this vital period is ASL.

A second bill that passed will provide greater access to deaf, deafblind and hard of hearing people by guaranteeing that closed captioning will be kept on televisions under certain circumstances. Activating closed captioning is an easy, no-cost way to make an environment more welcoming and to provide critical information to those who would otherwise not have access to it. Jan McCready-Johnson testified to legislators about her frightening experience during the Boston Marathon bombing. She knew something terrible had happened, but without closed captioning, had no way to find out exactly what it was.

The new law, which goes into effect on August 1, will require the closed captioning on TVs in hospital waiting rooms and surgical centers to be kept on at all times. After that date, if someone has turned the closed captioning off, the staff will have to turn it back on as soon as they reasonably can. The Commission on Deaf, DeafBlind, and Hard of Hearing Minnesotans had originally hoped that the law would cover more facilities, but are happy with this small step and will build from there.

The third bill that passed provides additional funding to three Adult Basic Education (ABE) programs, including the one offered by Communication Service for the Deaf (CSD). They offer classes to learn English and starting in 2017, will offer an alternative pathway to obtaining a secondary (high school) credential and intensive programming for citizenship tests that are accessible to adults who are deaf, deafblind and hard of hearing. CSD offers the only ABE program in ASL and English for deaf adults. Aaron Gutzke, CSD’s state program director, said “Tremendous thanks go to our teaching staff and students and without the support of the American Indian OIC, the Institute for New Americans, and the commission, this would not have been possible.”

Legislation considered but coming up just short of passing included a requirement that state-funded new construction or renovation must consider the acoustical ramifications for deaf and hard of hearing Minnesotans in rooms that accommodate large gatherings such as conferences, meeting rooms and theaters. The bill would have required that these spaces include hearing loops, a preferred assistive listening system that can send sound directly to most hearing aids without the person having to request or use additional equipment. The bill would have allowed these requirements to be waived if it was cost-prohibitive.

The commission’s goal was for this policy to be included in the overall bonding bill that failed to pass. Should the governor call a special session, there is still a chance that it could be passed this year. Otherwise, it will be a priority in 2017.

Finally, a bill that would have required the state to examine how to prevent and ameliorate the effects of age-related hearing loss was presented to a House committee which held a hearing and watched a video, Age-Related Hearing Loss – A Growing Public Health Issue. The film, produced by the commission in cooperation with Twin Cities Public Television, presented recent research linking age-related hearing loss to other health issues such as dementia and hospitalizations. It also explores how treating age-related hearing loss could save money for families as well as government at all levels. To view the video, go here.

-Beth Fraser is government relations director for the Commission on Deaf, DeafBlind and Hard of Hearing Minnesotans. John Wodele is a commission member

 

 

 

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