Legislators Work to Pass Mental Healthcare Bill of Rights for Deaf Community

Deaf individuals and their supporters report a tremendous dearth of mental health services for people who use sign language, leaving this group of people exceedingly isolated. HB 3415 would task the Oregon Health Authority with coordinating services and making sure the state has enough mental health providers who can communicate with the deaf.

Imagine living every day surrounded by neighbors and family members who cannot understand your language. Then imagine being shut out of counseling or talk therapy because few behavioral health providers speak that language, either.

Advocates for the deaf, speaking through sign-language interpreters, told the House Health Committee that’s exactly what they experience daily, as they asked for a mental health patients’ bill of rights for the deaf, the deaf-blind and the hard-of-hearing.

“There’s a lot of evidence and a lot of research showing, in the deaf and hard -of-hearing populations, the suicide rates are significantly higher, connected to the isolation and depression,” said Dr. Denise Thew-Hackett of Western Oregon University. “Ninety-five percent are from hearing families and most don’t know sign.”

Portland resident Steven Brown testified that he has had to travel to Tacoma, Washington, to train to be a psychologist because there was no one to supervise him in Oregon. “We need to increase access and visibility for mental health services,” he said.

The bill of rights -- House Bill 3415 -- calls on the Oregon Health Authority to appoint a mental health services coordinator for deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals to monitor mental health and addiction services across the state and ensure that mental health programs be available to those who communicate in sign language.

The bill also calls for hospitals and residential treatment centers to be equipped with people who are qualified to serve deaf people, and says deaf individuals seeking mental healthcare cannot be denied access to services based on their preferred communication mode.

HB 3415 has strong backing from a trio of legislators, including the chairwomen of the Senate Health and Senate Human Services Committees, Sen. Laurie Monnes Anderson, D-Gresham and Sen. Sara Gelser, D-Corvallis, as well as lead sponsor, freshman Republican Rep. Ron Noble, R-McMinnville.

Monnes Anderson said her sister was born deaf after her mother caught rubella while pregnant, a common occurrence in the days before a vaccine was developed.

“Oregon is one of the worst states for accommodations for the deaf,” said Monnes Anderson, whose sister lives in another state. “The services that are provided in other states are so much better than what we have here. We have neglected them.”

Gelser said services were so bad, even for state agencies, that when she convened a series of roundtable discussions about the community mental health system around the state, deaf people couldn’t participate because the Oregon Health Authority failed to provide sign-language interpreters.

“We had individuals who came who were deaf or hard-of-hearing, who had called ahead, and sign interpreters did not show up,” Gelser said. “The deaf and hard-of-hearing could not be heard. We need to endeavor to be sure that services are available, all-day, all-the-time.”

Interestingly, Brian Hartman, speaking in sign language for the Oregon Psychological Association, said he opposes parts of the bill, arguing that it would task the Oregon Health Authority with responsibilities it could not meet and put restraints on providers that could unintentionally limit access even further. Hartman wanted amendments and hoped to delay putting anything into statute until a workgroup could hammer out a more precise bill.

The bill came out of a community-needs assessment by the Department of Human Services that was paid for by a $200,000 grant the Legislature approved two years ago. Thew-Hackett was one of the researchers on that assessment, which was designed to find the gaps in services.

Rep. Mitch Greenlick, D-Portland, told Hartman that he would have to take up his amendments with Monnes Anderson or Gelser in the Senate, since the deadline for the bill to pass is approaching, and he plans a vote for Friday.

However, the bill will also likely need to head to the Committee on Ways & Means due to its impact on the state healthcare budget, particularly the new mental health coordinator for the deaf. Funding for that section of the bill faces an uncertain future because of the state’s reported $1.6 billion deficit for the next biennium.

Reach Chris Gray at chris@thelundreport.org.

Correction: Portland resident Steven Brown is studying in Tacoma, not Stephen Brown.

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