Public Testimony – Colorado Behavioral Task Force/Colorado Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing and Deaf Blind
My name is Lisa Weiss. I am a children’s and disabilities attorney and an education policy specialist. I am also the mother of a deaf teenager. Max is the reason I was asked to speak at this Town Hall meeting today and I want to thank you for giving the deaf community an opportunity to be heard.
My deepest wish is for people to understand that deaf people are just like everyone else. They are just people. I have found the systems in Colorado to be difficult because of this one thing. I know that the state agencies responsible for serving deaf people don’t understand. This is not for lack of people’s good intentions. I know the people who work at these agencies care. It’s because of lack of exposure. It’s because assumptions are made about what deaf people need by people who are not deaf. Over the last nine years I have witnessed the exclusion of deaf people in the meetings where their fate is being determined for them. To me, that’s the biggest problem. We need deaf people at every level of leadership and there are almost none.
I have the privilege of living with a deaf person and being a part of a deaf community. I oftentimes work in predominantly deaf groups. I understand the barriers that exist when the communication is inaccessible. I understand that inaccessibility is at the core of all of the struggles for our community. It is a barrier to everything. People are wired for communication. It is a basic human need. It is the reason communication is a civil right. Without the ability to communicate there is no opportunity for meaningful understanding or connection. For a meeting of our minds. What I wish people would understand is that this does not only affect the deaf person, this affects the whole group.
What I also wish people could see is that for a person in an inaccessible community, this one thing often is the reason for their behavioral health care need. Without access people can easily become isolated and withdrawn. We become depressed and anxious. I want you to try to imagine what it feels like to be fearful and to feel excluded everywhere because you can’t understand what is going on so you can’t connect. It’s not that difficult to imagine that at some point you really only feel safe in your own home. That is Max’s experience and that is our family’s experience.
OUR SCHOOL SYSTEM IS NOT FOCUSED ON PEOPLE AND IT IS HARMING OUR KIDS
I want you to know that I was raised in our public school system. I am a supporter. I moved back here when my kids were young because Colorado boasted of being a leader in deaf education and I wanted my kids to attend the same schools I did. I wanted my kids to go to the schools where I felt safe. But this isn’t the same school system. Our school system is no longer focused on its mission. Kids. From my perspective, our childrens’ social emotional needs are ignored unless their behavior becomes disruptive. Then they are restrained, suspended, or just pushed out and forgotten. There is little regard for our children, for our teachers, or for families.
Please understand that my experience is not just limited to Max. I have three kids and I can tell you that life has been extremely challenging for my family. All three of my kids have had adverse childhood experiences in the public school system and have been unable to attend school or have their needs met. As a mom who has kids who are gifted and who also have disabilities, I can tell you that it has gotten to the point where it is nearly impossible to get kids like mine safely through our school system. That’s because our school system has lost focus on the whole point of education.
As for our deaf kids, I know they are being harmed. Their accessibility needs are being neglected because the systems of support haven’t ever been set up. The services they need are too difficult and expensive for school districts so they just don’t provide them. I have heard often enough that parents are not complaining. This is not true. I know that our deaf kids are being neglected because of systemic failure and Max has been traumatized as a result. Our family has endured a lot. Let me be clear. I do understand that the accessibility needs are not just being neglected in the school system, but this is where I have been living until now and it is what I can personally verify.
MENTAL HEALTH CENTER OF DENVER FOCUSES ON PEOPLE AND THEY HAVE COMMITTED RESOURCES TO ACCESS FOR DEAF PEOPLE
All that said, in terms of behavioral health care outside of the school system, I think I can fairly say that Max has been fortunate. Especially relative to what I know about Max’s deaf peers. When Max needed it, I was able to find a private therapist who focuses on deaf adolescents and could work with Max. I didn’t have to worry about Max having access, which I know can take time to get set up.
Now Max is fortunate to be recovering from PTSD and the effects of social isolation at school. Max is benefitting from the programming at the Mental Health Center of Denver. There Max is able to participate in groups and activities with other teens. That’s because MHCD has been compassionate and patient and generous. That’s because MHCD is focused on their mission. That’s because MHCD sees deaf people as people.
What MHCD is also learning is that not all deaf people are alike. I have found this to be a real problem, especially in Colorado’s agencies. People need to understand that the deaf community is diverse. Deaf people speak. Deaf people use hearing technology. Deaf people use American Sign Language. Deaf people use something called Cued Speech. Deaf people use written language. There are many ways to communicate. The accessibility need varies depending on the person, the circumstances, and the setting.
THERE MUST BE A FOCUSED EFFORT ON THE DEAF COMMUNITY OR THEY WILL CONTINUE TO BE HARMED
Our deaf community looks to be relatively small. We are easily overlooked without focusing on us. The services we need are oftentimes costly for organizations to provide and most people do not even understand what we need.
I want to encourage this task force to make this community a priority. Organizations in Colorado must be supported to understand how to meet accessibility needs. Colorado needs to build an overall system of support. It requires education and it requires dedicated funding. Accessibility must be factored into every organization’s budget. And the system needs to call on a diverse group of the people in this effort who understand the accessibility need. The deaf people themselves are the leaders we need.
Thank you for your consideration.