hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires




A sign of dollars drying up

Tough times threaten group for hearing-impaired



Contributing writer


The children, seated in chairs around the edges of the room, were concentrating -- and laughing -- as they signaled to each other with their hands.

King monkey, cat, signed one girl to another. Cat, dog, signed that girl to a boy nearby, as the dozen kids, ages 6 to 12, played a game to help them learn American Sign Language.

The class is one of several offered by the Association for the Hearing Impaired, a group that helps people of all ages in Warren, Washington and Saratoga counties to learn how to communicate with deaf or hard-of-hearing family members, classmates and friends.

The group also helps promote understanding of issues for the deaf, which advocates say can help end the stigmatization of people with hearing loss.

But even though people have already signed up for the next series of classes, the group’s plans are temporarily on hold. The struggling nonprofit association is under a financial threat that could mean its demise.

In December, the association issued an urgent public appeal for $20,000 – nearly a fourth of its $88,000 annual budget -- just to help it stay afloat until its annual fund-raiser in March. Supporters responded by donating $13,000 as of late January.

The public appeal came after the local United Way cut its funding for the association by 20 percent and public donations dropped off amid the lingering recession, Executive Director Ben Driscoll said.

The financial pressures are typical of those faced by small nonprofit groups around the region as donations have slowed since the economic collapse of 2008.

As it struggles to carry on for now, the Association for the Hearing Impaired is talking with two larger nonprofit human services organizations about the possibility of joining forces to survive over the long term.

Driscoll said he won’t be certain about the group’s future until sometime in February.

One organization considering taking in the association is the Southern Adirondack Independent Living Center, whose building already includes the association’s offices and classrooms. The other prospective suitor, also in the Glens Falls area, has asked to remain anonymous while talks are ongoing.

“We understand that to offer the same types of programs, to be consistent with what we’ve done in the past, that we really need to basically merge with another organization,” Driscoll said.

He said it’s very hard for small nonprofits to compete for grants and donations in the current economic climate. That effort has been further hampered because the association has been unable to afford sufficient office help to handle phone calls and paperwork, he added.

Driscoll said the association is “open for business” for now and that he’s optimistic about the negotiations with other nonprofits.

Making connections

At the children’s signing class in late January, youngsters picked up signing quickly. They said they loved the class, in some cases because it helps them be able make friends with people who are deaf.

Jenna Owens, 10, of Queensbury, said the class is a link between her and a fellow student. Without signing, Jenna has to talk to the girl through her interpreter.

“It’s easier to talk to her like this,” Jenna said.

Kassey Granger teaches the sign-language class, as well as others. As the association’s program coordinator, she also runs the office and she does it all part-time. She and Driscoll are the association’s only two paid employees.

Granger is carrying on the work of her mother, Sandra Clark, who started the group in 1986 because, as a deaf person, she wasn’t able to find many services north of Albany.

At first, Clark simply hosted a support group in her home. Later, she served as the association’s executive director for 20 years. She retired five years ago.

After years of helping her mother, Granger started working at the association in 2010. Gradual-onset deafness in her family is being carried down through the generations.

Granger’s grandmother is deaf, as is Granger. Granger said her hearing loss started when she was 6 and continued over several decades. She had a cochlear implant in 2010 years ago and now can hear with it in.

Now one of Granger’s daughters, who is 15, is losing her hearing, she said.

One of the association’s purposes is to raise the community’s awareness of hearing loss, including the possibility of it happening to anyone.

Granger said she knows of a teenage girl who just lost her hearing. The cause is unknown; the girl was not sick. Others can lose their hearing as the result of illness, an accident or the use of certain medications.

“You never know when you’re going to lose your hearing,” Granger said.

And you also don’t usually know if someone has a hearing loss. Unless someone’s using sign language with someone else, there’s no outward sign of their hearing status.

Part of Granger’s work is counseling families of those with hearing loss. She said she knows how to help from personal experience.

“It wasn’t easy for me,” she said. “It’s very difficult when you lose your hearing. The whole family comes in, and they’re all crying.”

But there are devices that can help make life easier at home, school or work -- or even at public performances.

The association offers low-cost classes in sign language and lip reading. It also organizes support groups, such as the one for people receiving cochlear implants, and social groups for simply getting together or for playing bridge.

A group popular with young people is a signing singing group called Fabulous Friends with Flying Fingers that performs throughout the area, helping hearing children learn sign language and bringing awareness of hearing issues to the public.

The association provides information and referral services and loans out assistive technology like telephone and TV amplification equipment, telephone equipment, personal amplification devices, amplification systems for meetings, classrooms and theaters, and devices that flash lights to indicate ringing doorbells, phones and fire alarms.

Homegrown support network

Clark, the former director, said news of the association’s struggle is sobering.

“I’m really sad to hear they’re having such financial difficulties,” she said. “I have to say we were really blessed through the years that I was there. People were very generous.

“The need was so strong, and I’m sure it still is, because many people have hearing loss.”

Many people in the community need hearing aids and don’t know how to go about it or how to cope, Clark said.

The association estimates that 1 of every 9 New Yorkers has hearing loss, with the proportion increasing to 1 in 3 for those over 65.

In the mid-1980s, when Clark’s diminishing hearing became total deafness, she found she had to travel to Albany Medical Center for services. The program there helped her adjust to hearing loss and to use a hearing aid and hone her lip-reading skills. She and a fellow support group member drove there at least once a month for two years to attend a support group and other programs.

Then they decided to create their own services closer to home. They started a support group; nine people came to the first session. Later they started a newsletter and then, with the help of the Lions Club, began loaning out assistive equipment.

Clark started offering more services from her home, and the association grew from there.

“There were many times that people would just come to our home,” she recalled. “You never knew who was going to be at our house.”

The Association for the Blind helped to connect Clark with the Lions Club, which helps with sight and hearing issues. The club bought assistive equipment that the association could let people borrow for a short time to see how it worked. Those groups also helped the association set up an office to use outside of Clark’s home.

Somehow, for all those years, the association survived financially.

“Obviously, we were never sitting on a large endowment,” Clark said.

There was no state or federal funding either. Membership and contributions provide 70 percent of the association’s income.

The United Way and other agencies also helped financially, and many volunteers contributed their time.

Today, the association’s members number between 150 and 200. The members are individuals, families and some businesses to whom the association distributes more than 1,000 printed and e-mailed monthly newsletters.

But the Great Recession has hit everyone hard, Driscoll said.

“We’re in a very giving community, but giving has been down, and the amount that is given by those that can give has been down,” Driscoll said.

Driscoll said good hearing health is as important as good sight, but it isn’t stressed as a priority for people.

The association is trying to raise awareness that people should have their hearing tested, especially with all the threats to hearing, like increased use of iPhones and other mobile devices.

Tom Silva of Hudson Falls said it would be “horrible” if the financial problems can’t be resolved and the association actually had to close. He has two daughters in the sign language class who want to be able to talk with hearing-impaired classmates.

“That would be such a valuable resource wasted,” he said.





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