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D.C. Council considers new office to resolve sign-language woes

November 27, 2018

The D.C. Council is considering creating a separate office for deaf and hard-of-hearing residents because disability advocates say the city fails to provide qualified American Sign Language (ASL) interpreters.

Deaf city resident Brianne Burger is director/liaison of the Office of Special Institutions at the U.S. Department of Education. She began advocating for a new city office after the January 2016 blizzard.

“D.C. knew this blizzard was coming and prepared for it ahead of time. However, no one thought to hire ASL interpreters for [Mayor Muriel Bowser’s] press conferences,” said Ms. Burger. “It was an afterthought, and by the time they realized it, no one had a list or directory of interpreters.”

The D.C. area is known for having one of the highest concentrations of deaf and hard-of-hearing residents in the country, and the city is home to Gallaudet University, the federally chartered, liberal arts college for deaf and hard-of-hearing students.

This month, council member Charles Allen, Ward 6 Democrat, introduced legislation with member David Grosso, at-large independent, to create a new bureau: The Office on Deaf and Hard of Hearing Establishment Amendment Act of 2018 would establish a new office to take over responsibility of ASL interpreters from the Office of Disability Rights.

Ms. Burger originally proposed the idea for the John A. Wilson District Building in March 2016, citing the 35 other states that have an office of deaf and hard-of-hearing. The idea didn’t gain traction until the 2018 elections.

Robb Dooling and Matthew Sampson are both deaf D.C. residents who won Advisory Neighborhood Commission elections this month. Mr. Sampson said he and Mr. Dooling began supporting Ms. Burger’s idea after they found they couldn’t attend ANC meetings due to a lack of sign-language interpreters.

The council earmarked $25,000 in the 2016 budget for ANC interpreters, but only $1,000 was ever spent due to difficulties allocating the funding, The Washington City Paper reported. This year, ANCs have $15,000 for interpreters but requesting one remains a messy process.

Emails from Nov. 1 reviewed by The Washington Times indicate that the executive director of the Office of Advisory Neighborhood Commissions handles requests for the Office of Disability Rights because the council set up the funding to be processed by the Department on Disability Services, which does not provide interpreters for the public.

“No one knew how to access that fund,” said Mr. Sampson. “So it was clear to us that we needed an office to coordinate issues like these.”

Mr. Dooling, a native sign-language user, said he is “excited and hopeful” the bill can help blacklist “lousy interpreters” who he says are rehired despite showing up late for work or being unable to understand signing.

Mathew McCollough, director of the Office of Disability Rights (ODR), said in a statement to The Times that the office is “committed to the full implementation of the Americans with Disabilities Act in the District and compliance with all other federal and local disability-related laws,” and that residents are encouraged to contact the office to file a complaint.

A spokeswoman for the office added that ODR has made “revisions” to its sign-language program, and that it fulfilled 486 requests for interpreters over the past fiscal year.

Interpreter woes also have plagued the legislative process. Sean Maiwald, an adjunct professor at Gallaudet who is also deaf, helped write the bill this summer as a fellow in Mr. Grosso’s office. He said the $60-per-hour cost for interpreters exceeded the council budget and forced him to sometimes go without one.

“It was hard to have impromptu meetings or to just drop in I had to plan things out several weeks in advance which was difficult when the fellowship is only for the quarter,” he said. “It was also really hard to network or collaborate with people especially considering the hectic schedules.”

It’s a struggle that’s familiar to Mr. Sampson, who said the current request deadlines has hurt his ability to be an effective commissioner.

“If something slips by me, and I find out about it after the five-day limit to request an interpreter, then that effectively means I can’t go,” he said.

The bill is expected to receive a hearing early next year, after which it will require two votes from the council, the mayor’s signature and congressional approval to become law.

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