In a move that has surprised and angered deaf and hard of hearing residents of north Louisiana, the Louisiana Commission for the Deaf (LCD) has awarded its contract for sign language interpreting and Assistive Listening Device (ALD) distribution to New Horizons Independent Living Center (NHILC).
The Betty and Leonard Phillips Deaf Action Center of Louisiana (DAC) has held the interpreting services contract from 1983 to 2011. The ALD distribution contract has been held by the DAC since the program began. However, as of June 1, 2011 both will be awarded to NHLIC.
The deaf community has expressed alarm over the move because they were not displeased with the services provided by the DAC, nor were they consulted prior to the LCD Executive Director, Naomi DeDual, essentially making a unilateral decision, according to people familiar with the process.
David Hylan, Jr., the executive director of DAC, was informed that the contract change had begun as early as summer 2010. He received information that DeDual directly contacted NHLIC and asked if they would be interested in the contract despite their inability to effectively communicate in American Sign Language or have access to certified interpreters. Hylan said he believes the decision was made to change contractors because of a personal bias held by DeDual. In 2009, five agencies representing six of the eight state regions filed a grievance against DeDual for lack of transparency, hostile behavior and not communicating with contractors. It is believe this is her retaliation against all five agencies.
"I find it extremely strange that five agencies filed a grievance against DeDual in 2009 and those five were informed their contracts would not be renewed. Since that time one of the five has been given their contract back. Prior to her phone call last summer, New Horizons had no interest in pursuing the contract. In fact," Hylan said, "They didn't even know it was about to be renewed."
Hylan said his sources informed him that NHLIC was told to send an email of interest to LCD, which he says is an unusual method of seeking a state contract.
"It was about a week later that New Horizons received a signed contract in the mail from LCD. This happened while DAC was being told that the contract process had not begun and no decisions had been made."
"Of course, we already knew the contract had been awarded," Hylan said, "but the LCD executive director would not admit it. This goes against the way most state agencies usually work, with fair and open bidding processes." Because of the amounts of the contracts LCD is not required to have a "Request For Proposal" process. DeDual has taken advantage of this fact.
The DAC Executive Director said he was disturbed that DeDual waited until the twelfth hour to involve the LCD especially since she had already started the process almost 10 months before. It is also troubling to Hylan that DeDual had the authority to act on a unilateral decision without LCD's knowledge. "She made up her mind to grant New Horizons the contract even before consulting with the full Commission or more importantly the north Louisiana Deaf Community," he said. "Our performance has been stellar. This feels like a personal vendetta."
In response to reactions from north Louisiana Deaf Community members and DAC supporters, Hylan said his agency is hosting a Town Hall Meeting on, Tuesday, May 24 to educate the community, answer questions and determine how public opinion is running about the situation.
After gathering input and support from his constituents, Hylan said DAC plans to mount a protest over the contract situation.
"We plan to assist the Deaf of north Louisiana as much as possible in mobilizing and traveling to Baton Rouge for the next meeting of the Louisiana Commission for the Deaf," Hylan said. Currently, that meeting is scheduled for June 17 and Hylan hopes to have a minimum of 100 people make the trek to the capital.
"We want every commissioner on that Board to understand that DAC has faithfully and professionally fulfilled our commitment to the deaf community for 28+ years," Hylan said. "We also want them [LCD] to realize that New Horizons is a fine organization, very proficient in assisting people with disabilities in getting rehabilitation and help to lead productive and fulfilling lives. But, and this is a huge but, they are not capable of fulfilling the part of the LCD contract dealing with American Sign Language (ASL)."
ASL is the means by which most deaf individuals communicate with others. Hylan said NHLIC has no certified interpreters on its staff. He said while they could possibly handle the parts of the contract that deals with hearing aids and amplified telephones, they cannot offer ASL interpretation, legally or otherwise.
"If no one at NHILC can communicate PROFICIENTLY with a deaf person in the deaf person's language how can their needs be understood and met?" Hylan asked. He said he was more concerned about the loss of important services to the deaf than the contract amount his agency would not receive.
Currently, the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID) maintains the standards by which ASL Interpreters are certified, tested, and must maintain proficiency.
Hylan said proficiency is not a wish, it is a requirement. "Especially in a medical emergency or in a law enforcement setting, accurate ASL interpretation can mean the difference between life or death. We have taken that very seriously for nearly 30 years," he said.
Hylan maintains that making NHLIC responsible for ASL interpretation funded by the state not only puts them and LCD at risk for potential lawsuits, but could jeopardize lives as well. "That's a situation I am compelled to try to do something about," Hylan said.