Advocates for the deaf are concerned that officials at Northwestern Connecticut Community College are slowly phasing out a program that helps deaf and hard-of-hearing students. But school officials claim nothing has changed.
The Winsted college hosts the only deaf program of its kind in the state. Deaf and hard-of-hearing students can earn an associate’s degree, and hearing students can learn about issues related to the deaf community.
Recent personnel and administrative decisions have raised fears among some students and advocates, though, that the program for deaf students is on the way out.
Two positions within the deaf program have not been filled due to budget constraints, according to school spokesman Grantley Adams.
The program director position is currently being filled on an interim basis by Sarah Bement, a signing interpreter at the college. Bement declined comment to WNPR.
The school also eliminated the old program director’s position and changed the minimum qualifications for the new director, which doesn't require experience working with deaf or hard of hearing people.
Kim Silva, a retired teacher and advocate for the deaf community, said she filed a complaint with state and federal agencies, alleging violations to the Americans with Disabilities Act.
"The decisions to cut positions… impacts the daily lives of deaf and hard of hearing citizens of Connecticut," she stated in an email.
Other personnel decisions show the college is no longer focused on this flagship program, Silva said. For example, the college recently hired a person who doesn't know how to use sign language to fill a position on a part-time basis. The position was formerly full-time, and occupied by someone who knew how to sign. School spokesman Adams said that only one applicant could sign, and withdrew his or her application.
"[W]e would have preferred to have a counselor with [American Sign Language] experience," Adams stated in an email. "It is not easy to find such a person."
Since applicants for the job were scant, the college had to decide whether to hire someone less qualified, or hire nobody at all.
Three Northwestern programs are at issue.
One is called the Collegiate Education for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing (CEDHH) program. This is strictly for deaf or hard-of-hearing students, and it enables them to access classes by offering a variety of services, such as note-taking and sign language interpretation.
The other two programs – Deaf Studies, and Interpreter Preparation – are for hearing students.
Roseann Dennerlein resigned as counselor for the deaf in July 2014 after 25 years. She said that a former full-time job had been advertised as a part-time position, with signing skills listed as a preferred, and not a required, qualification.
“I was quite alarmed when I saw the... position posted with restricted hours and the [limited] qualification," Dennerlein wrote in an April 2015 letter to the CEDHH advisory board. "It is imperative to understand and be fluent in American Sign Language in order to adequately provide the specialized educational assessment tools and class placement advisement for deaf and hard of hearing students."
Advocates argue that the program should be moved to another college. Silva said that would be a "win/win for careers for both deaf and hearing people" in Connecticut.
The CEDHH advisory board recommended moving all three programs to Naugatuck Valley Community College in Waterbury. At least eight state and private organizations have supported the idea of moving to another college, including the state’s Department of Rehabilitative Services.
“CEDHH is a great program for our deaf and hard of hearing job seekers,” wrote Heidi Henaire, the state coordinator for the deaf, in a December 2014 letter to the advisory board. “However, its location, lack of public transportation, and the lack of technical programs available at [Northwestern] make it inaccessible for many of our job seekers, particularly those who live in the inner city.”
Barbara Douglass, Northwestern’s former president, initially encouraged the program’s relocation.
By November, however, the Board of Regents and Northwestern leaders decided to keep the program in Winsted.
“Quite frankly, it is extremely difficult to relocate a 'boutique program'… that has such high cost and low yield,” Douglass said in an email to Maura McGuire, assistant director at the Capitol Region Education Council.
Adams, Northwestern's spokesman, said no other state colleges have expressed interest in developing a deaf studies program.
"Some in the deaf community have questioned whether the program can move to a larger population center, however this is not the position of the college," Adams said.
According to former president Douglass, Northwestern spends roughly $700,000 an academic year "serving deaf students." Deafness affects roughly 30 percent of the disabled population at Northwestern. In 2011, 15 of the 20 deaf students there spoke American Sign Language as their first language, according to the state’s Interagency Deaf Service Information Sharing Planning Committee.
Enrollment has also been on the decline. In 2013, there were 20 deaf or hard-of-hearing students enrolled in the CEDHH program. This fall, only seven enrolled, according to data provided by the college.
Advocate Silva contends that this decline is a result of recent decisions, and recruitment hasn't been as robust as in the past. Many organizations that supported the program being moved to a new college point to Northwestern's inaccessibility as part of the reason enrollment has been low.
In a statement emailed to WNPR through the community college’s public relations department, Northwestern President Michael Rooke said the college intends to continue the deaf studies program.
“Northwestern Connecticut Community College has a long tradition of supporting the deaf community and for preparing students to be interpreters,” Rooke wrote. “The college intends to continue that tradition and is currently working the [CEDHH] Advisory Committee to identify opportunities to work together to support our programming for the deaf.”
Rooke took over the presidency earlier this year, after Douglass retired on Oct. 1 after 10 years at the helm.
Silva pointed to differences in the job-posting language between the old program director position and the new one, as well as not filling positions and changing full-time positions to part-time ones, as evidence that something is amiss in the program.
Additionally, the program director salaries are different. The minimum salary for the old director position, posted in 2009, started at $66,523. The position posted this November offered a minimum salary of $56,298. Compare the old posting with the new one:
Silva's complaint with the state's Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities seeks the program to be relocated and the full-time positions to be reinstated. Charles Krich, an attorney for the commission, said these cases cannot be discussed while being adjudicated.
“As best as I can determine there may be (four) complaints filed by individuals against Northwestern Community College that raise issues related to the deaf and hard of hearing program,” he stated in an email.
The Board of Regents declined to comment for this story.
Similar programs across the country have faced cutbacks. Last year, the Vermont Center for the Deaf and Heard of Hearing ceased operations, affecting more than 600 deaf and hard of hearing students there.
The emails and letters cited to in this story were accessed through the Connecticut Council on Organizations Serving the Deaf.