There is no New York state office dedicated to serving the deaf and hard-of-hearing community. Now, a few lawmakers from the Hudson Valley hope to change that.

Sean Gerlis is deaf, the third generation in his family; his son is the fourth. The West Nyack, Rockland County resident, citing statistics from a number of sources, says about 50 million people in the U.S. have some degree of hearing loss, out of a population of more than 300 million. Gerlis communicates using an American Sign Language interpreter via a video relay service. He says New York has many schools for the deaf as well as resources.

“But they’re so scattered and there is no coordination of services, nothing that’s a check and balance, no structure, and oftentimes what happens, people fall through the cracks,” Gerlis says.

He says there is a lot of misunderstanding between the deaf and hearing communities in New York, and setting up a state Office of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing is long overdue.

“If I don’t feel well, and I want to go to my local physician, I might say, OK, I’m not feeling well, and the doctor is just taken aback. He doesn’t know how to communicate and he refuses to pay for the services of a sign language interpreter, claiming the expense. Another expense is even our attorneys here in the state. They refuse to provide sign language interpreters even though the law is requiring that of them. So just, I mean, there’s just layer upon layer of these types of issues. I could go on and on,” Gerlis says.

Gerlis is one of the advocates who approached state lawmakers about the need for such an office. He says he first approached elected officials in 2017. Gerlis, who is a member of the Empire State Association of the Deaf, says New York is one of 12 states without an office for deaf and hard-of-hearing services. Democratic state Assemblyman Ken Zebrowski represents part of Rockland County. He listened to Gerlis, and other community members, and introduced legislation to establish a state Office of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing.

“And it’s become apparent over these years that there is not an entity in New York state that is looking to coordinate services, that are looking at issues and challenges that the community has and that that would be extremely helpful in terms of making sure that New York state is fully open to all members of the community,” Zebrowski says.

Democrat James Skoufis of the 39th district sponsors the bill in the Senate.

“It’s actually astonishing. I think most people would be surprised to learn that there really is no office, no department, no agency in state government that people, New Yorkers, who are hard of hearing or deaf can turn to,” Skoufis says. “It’s just a void, a black hole for literally millions of New Yorkers who are hard of hearing if they are looking for, looking for programming support, guidance, navigating state government, navigating services.”

Zebrowski says the majority of the commission would be made up of members of the deaf and hard-of-hearing community.

“At the end of the day, you can’t craft good policy in an issue area like this without having the direct collaboration and input of members of the community,” says Zebrowski.

Zebrowski says an interagency council created in 2007 to streamline services to the community was originally under the administration of the state Commission on Quality of Care and Advocacy for Persons with Disabilities (CQCAPD). In 2012, it was moved to the newly created Justice Center and, since the reorganization, the Interagency Coordinating Council for Services to Persons Who are Deaf, Deaf-Blind, or Hard of Hearing has not met in years and is defunct. A new Office of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing would replace the defunct council and provide a central site for essential services. It would be led by an executive director who would advise the governor and legislature on how the state can best meet the needs of the deaf, deaf-blind and hard-of-hearing communities. Again, Gerlis:

“So the deaf community oftentimes is being left behind in a variety of different areas, such as civil rights, education, medical services, social services, employment, the enforcement of laws. And small businesses suffer — private sector or public sector — government programs, a variety of agencies,” Gerlis says.  

He says there are far more areas.

“A well-formed state agency that was vetted that would serve these communities — the deaf, hard-of-hearing and deaf-blind communities — would then actually be able to meet the equal-access needs of these communities —  deaf, hard of hearing and deaf-blind,” says Gerlis.

Zebrowski says the community numbers about 2 million in New York. Zebrowski, whose Assembly bill so far has more than 10 bipartisan co-sponsors, says any pushback could be about the cost for such an office.

“I don’t think that the money necessary to set up an office is going to break the bank of the state budget. Quite frankly, this is something that should have been done generations ago,” says Zebrowksi. “We have the New York state Commission for the Blind. We need to be making sure that the state is doing everything possible every single day to break down barriers for these communities. And you can’t do that if you don’t have anybody that’s thinking about this on a daily, weekly and monthly basis.”  

So far, the bill has two Senate co-sponsors, both Democrats, including Shelley Mayer of Westchester.