A bus pulled up in front of the Missouri State House of Representatives building. People began exiting the vehicle, helped by others.
“When I got off the bus,” Mary Hale says, remembering the scene, “I hadn’t a clue where I was going.”
Many of Hale’s fellow travelers were in the same situation — because they, like her, are both deaf and blind.
The group of 10 included people who were anywhere from totally deaf and totally blind to partially deaf and partially blind. Hale herself is blind and hearing-impaired.
They’d come to Jefferson City to testify before the Standing Committee of Children and Families, testifying in favor of a bill that would help create more of the very same people who helped them address the committee.
As they traveled through the hallways of the Capitol, Hale recalls, a group of volunteers followed them, describing what was to the left and to the right, as well as explaining how room was laid out. When they reached their destination, the helpers explained where the committee was sitting. When they were called to speak, the volunteers made sure the deaf-blind speakers could find the chairs and face the microphone in the correct direction.
These people, called Support Service Providers (SSPs), are crucial to the deaf-blind community.
“There was no way we could have done that without the help of what we call SSPs, people who assist us as our eyes and our ears,” Hale explains.
Hale started Sight and Sound Impaired of St. Louis, a non-profit networking group for the local deaf-blind community. She’s been working to achieve something like House Bill 1696 since she moved to St. Louis from Ohio seven years ago.
Upon relocating, she found that, unlike Ohio and more than 20 other states, Missouri does not have a program that trains and certifies SSPs. She started a small program to train SSPs within her networking group, but that can only go so far.
By offering funding and formal certification, the bill could make working as an SSP more feasible. Training could also make SSPs better and more plentiful — and that could make life much better for deaf-blind people in Missouri.
Hale explains it like this: if you’re blind, you rely on your ears; if you’re deaf, you rely on sight. But if you can’t hear well or see well, you can’t drive (as Hale says, “You don’t want us driving”), you don’t know who or what is around you, and you might need a voice interpreter to help you hear or someone who can “tactile sign” sign language into your hands. Even if you may be able to go grocery shopping or go to the doctor, it’s hard to find community and easy to become homebound.
“Without help, not only how do you get places, but how do you interact with people? You can’t,” says Hale.
That’s why Representative Lyle Rowland (R-Cedarcreek) sponsored the bill.
“These people, we don’t have many of them, so the amount of money that we’re requesting is not a lot as compared with the whole state budget, but it would do so much for these individuals,” Rowland says. “They’d like to be as independent as everyone else.”
The bill would put a maximum of $300,000 towards establish programs to train and certify SSPs; it could also open the door for additional federal grants.
There is no guarantee of funding, Rowland says. “We’re just hoping that at some point in time that our appropriations process will come up with the money.”
Last week, the bill passed its second committee hearing. It will next head to the floor leader to be considered for inclusion, at which point the whole Missouri House would vote on it. Rowland hopes this could happen before March 18.
Even people who have full sight or hearing today could at some point need an SSP, Hale warns.
“It’s only going to get worse because as the population ages, those that are blind are going to start to lose their hearing as natural, those that are deaf could possibly lose sight to cataracts, glaucoma, diabetes—which is going to put them in that category of deaf-blind,” Hale says. “The need is there.”