Last week I received more than a few emails about the possibility of the State of New Mexico consolidating the New Mexico Commission for the Blind
, the Governor’s Commission on Disability
, and the New Mexico Commission for Deaf and Hard of Hearing Persons
. One week from today, on Monday, February 1st, 2010, the Governor's Commission on Disability will hold a Public Meeting in Santa Fe to discuss consolidating the Governor's Commission on Disability, the Commission for the Blind and the Commission for Deaf and Hard of Hearing persons.
The thinking runs like this: times are tough all around, and there would be fewer expenses if all of these programs would be served under one umbrella agency.
I’m not so sure.
This is Part 1 on this issue. Part 2 will be forthcoming on Saturday after I’m back in Barelas and have had a chance to put my ear to the ground. (Yeah, bad pun.)
Let me give you some of my background so you can see where I’m coming from.
I’ve done my share of working for the broader disability community, as well as work for the deaf and hard of hearing community. I've given numerous lectures nationally and internationally on these communities related to my line of work, bioethics. I'm never comfortable calling myself an expert in anything (because there is so much I do not yet know), but in this area, I've got a fair amount of expertise.
Fresh out of college I moved to Taos, New Mexico. My first job in the Land of Enchantment was working to develop an advocacy group called People First
of Taos – my paycheck came from New Mexico ARC
, the organization formerly known as the Association of Retarded Citizens.
(Digression: the name change to ARC was in response to community pressures – “retarded” is now an offensive word, and the members of this organization, including people with developmental disabilities, wanted to change it. I believe that people should have a right to decide what they ought to be called.)
The people I worked with on People First had developmental and cognitive disabilities, but they were determined to become self-advocates and they did. I'm proud to have been a small part of that movement. In addition to working to set up People First, I also sat on the Taos Mayor's Committee for People with Disabilities, representing both the nascent local organization of People First, plus people with hearing loss, and adding my own voice as a person with a disability (hearing loss, I called it at that time). From time to time we would work with the Governor’s Commission on the Handicapped, now the Governor's Commission on Disability.
(Second digression: names are important. The word "handicapped" has fallen out of favor, and people first language has replaced it. That is, language that refers to “persons with disabilities” instead of “the handicapped” or “the disabled”. This goes to the heart of the disability rights movement – recognize us as people first, not as a disability that happens to be attached to a person. If you love someone with a disability, you will know exactly what I mean here. So much of what we fight for every day is to be recognized as equals.)
A couple of years later, after I had moved the Duke City, I ended up as a member of the Albuquerque/Bernalillo Commission on People with Disabilities. This was primarily because of my work with Albuquerque’s Self-Help for Hard of Hearing people (now Hearing Loss Association of Albuquerque
) and the Community Outreach Program for the Deaf
, New Mexico's only social service agency solely serving the Deaf, deaf, and hard of hearing population. I didn’t know it at that time, but this was the first step to developing my life’s work as an advocate for the signing Deaf community and people with hearing loss.
(Third digression: the upper case "D" in Deaf is deliberate. It is the convention used in the literature to refer to the group of people who use a signed language as their primary means of communication. In the US, this language is most often American Sign Language. In Albuquerque, this is also the case, though there are a few members of the Deaf community here who also use Cuban Sign Language and one (some?) of the Mexican Sign Languages. The use of deaf with a lower case "d" indicates hearing loss only.)
Back to the issue that is on the table in Santa Fe - the possibility of merging these commissions. There is a long history in this country of separate schools and facilities for deaf people and blind people, and there are historical and pragmatic reasons for this. Here in New Mexico, we have the New Mexico School for the Deaf
in Santa Fe (plus a branch school right here in Albuquerque
) and the New Mexico School for the Blind and Visually Impaired
in Alamogordo. I’m not going to say anything about the establishment of the Commission for the Blind, because I don’t know much about their history, but I will comment on the New Mexico Commission for Deaf and Hard of Hearing Persons.
Two things are important to keep in mind. First, hearing loss is the single most common disability
occurring in this country, and by extension, in New Mexico. Second, the community of Deaf people in New Mexico largely use American Sign Language as their primary language – many of these people have limited skills in the primary spoken language of their community, be it Spanish, English, Navaho or one of the Pueblo languages.
(Fourth digression: I’m often asked why so many Deaf people can’t master a spoken language -usually the person makes a comparison to bilinguals who master two languages. The reasons are complicated, but imagine this: you are put into a soundproof booth and told that you must learn spoken Japanese. You can watch all the mouth movements you want, and people will help you by repeating words and phrases, but you hear nothing. Now add to this the challenge of doing this without the benefit of having a foundation the full acquisition of any language – including American Sign Language – and you see how difficult this task may be).
This point about language cannot be overlooked.
In my fifteen years in New Mexico, there have been two controversies regarding the selection of the executive director of the New Mexico Commission for Deaf and Hard of Hearing Persons. The most recent controversy occurred not long after the first election of Bill Richardson as governor. He had offered the name of a person as the executive director of the NMDCHH who did not sign. The community pushed back (disclosure: I was part of that pushback) because who in the hell wants to be represented by someone with whom you cannot communicate? There is something profoundly unjust about appointing a person to advocate for a community that she has never engaged with directly.
In a nutshell, this is my concern.
The New Mexico Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Persons was set up in part to represent a New Mexico constituency that includes a linguistic minority. In addition to the language issue, there are also cultural mores that are important to communication.
To subsume this Commission (NMCDHH) under one that wants to do all things for all people with disabilities is shortsighted; it is an attempt at a power grab that will ultimately be detrimental to both New Mexicans with disabilities and the New Mexico Deaf Community.
Stayed tuned for Saturday’s post detailing the arguments.