Deaf, deafblind and hard of hearing Michiganders have been ‘undercounted and overlooked’

By: - September 18, 2019 8:04 pm

Michigan Capitol | Susan J. Demas

A new study shows that the population of those who are deaf, deafblind or hard of hearing in Michigan has been underestimated for years.

Michigan Department of Civil Rights Division on Deaf, DeafBlind and Hard of Hearing press conference | MCDR photo, Facebook

The Michigan Department of Civil Rights Division on Deaf, DeafBlind and Hard of Hearing unveiled a data-gathering project, Not Without Us — the first statewide needs assessment in 30 years — at a Wednesday press conference in Lansing.

The project found that 7.4% of Michigan’s population is estimated to identify as either deaf, deafblind or hard of hearing (DDBHH). This is almost double the 2017 American Community Survey census estimation of 4% of the population.

Now MCDR officials are asking to work together with policymakers to create more equitable legislation. Annie Urasky, director of the MDCR Division on Deaf, DeafBlind and Hard of Hearing says the community has been “under-counted and overlooked.”

Urasky said that this under-estimation has affected access to health care, government services, education, funding and pay equity for those in the DDBHH community.

“Such significant discrepancies lead to under-resourcing and under-representation throughout Michigan’s public and cultural life,” Urasky said. “With this new data, we will be able to more effectively work to solve systemic problems facing these communities.” 

Annie Urasky | Facebook

Urasky explained that the research done through the census and assessment will help representatives understand their districts and better serve their constituents who identify as deaf, deafblind and hard of hearing. 

The assessment revealed that a majority of DDBHH community members reported lack of captioning at public events, such as school, work, governmental meetings and concerts. Seventy-two percent of the survey respondents perceived a low availability for captioning at these types of events.

The percentage of DDBHH individuals who have high-school diplomas or equivalency is about 97% based on survey responses. This is compared to 90% of the state population age 25 and older with a high school diploma. 

However, the assessment results show there is a significant income disparity in the deaf or deafblind communities when compared to Michigan’s average based on education level.

The median income for a Michigan resident with a bachelor’s degree, which is about 17% of the state’s population, is between $55,920 and $63,534 annually.

Twenty-three percent of DDBHH respondents recorded an annual income between $25,000 to $35,000 annually; 18% reported $15,000 to $25,000; 10% reported $10,000 to $15,000 and 18% percent reporte less than $10,000.

“When you talk about that person’s experience in education, how their experience was and how that lead to their success in employment, are we seeing a disconnect there?” Urasky asked. 

Michigan Department of Civil Rights Division on Deaf, DeafBlind and Hard of Hearing Supreme Court visit. Sept. 18, 2019 | MCDR photo

Another aspect of the assessment was gauging the community’s policy priorities to help promote equity. 

The top priorities for both the deaf and deafblind communities are:

  • Promote legislation that protects the rights of people who are DDBHH and ensures funding for programs and services.
  • Improve quality of services and accommodations for people who are DDBHH.
  • Provide education to state agencies and the public to ensure communication access for people who are DDBHH.

For the hard of hearing community, better funding for programs and services, as well as education for state agencies and the public, also ranked in their top priorities. Additionally, they would like to see advocacy for hearing aid coverage through health insurance. 

“We got the perspective from the community, and now we need to bring it to the decision-makers and talk to them about how we can work with them to improve accessibility,” Urasky said. “We want to make sure that we are hitting the areas and impacting the areas that have been previously overlooked.”

The MDCR division has been hosting community conversations with stakeholders and community members since August, and will continue to do so until the end of September. 

The needs assessment was launched in September 2018 and the data analysis was finalized in June 2019. The Division partnered with Madonna University and Public Sector Consultants, a Lansing-based consulting firm, to review the data. 

According to a press release from the division, the Not Without Us census and survey were funded by a $250,000 budget assignment in Fiscal Year 2018, and a one-time special appropriation of $150,000 from the legislature in Fiscal Year 2019.

Jill Gaus, a chair on the division advisory council, said that the community wants — more than anything — to feel seen by lawmakers and the general public. 

“This is all a matter of educating the public,” said Gaus. “I think the Legislature and the data and all of this is going to open a lot of doors, a lot of ears and a lot of eyes for a lot of people out there.”

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Allison R. Donahue
Allison R. Donahue

Allison R. Donahue is a former Michigan Advance reporter who covered education, women's issues and LGBTQ issues. Previously, she was a suburbs reporter at the St. Cloud Times in St. Cloud, Minn., covering local education and government. As a graduate of Grand Valley State University, she has previous experience as a freelance researcher for USA Today and an intern with WOOD TV-8.