Steven Snow

Steven Snow, executive director of the Idaho Council for the Deaf and Hard Hearing, signs as he presents an award to ConAgra's Lamb Weston potato plant in June of 2013 for its successful efforts to improve the quality of life for its deaf employees.

BOISE — For 11 years, the executive director of the Idaho Council for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing has had no funding for a sign-language interpreter in his office, though he is deaf himself and speaks through an interpreter.

That’s meant that when lawmakers or someone else wants a meeting with Director Steven Snow, he’s had to arrange for a contract interpreter. “I know that we will not be able to get an interpreter in less than three days if we are fortunate,” Snow told the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee in January, in response to a question about why there’s so much “rigamarole” and delay when lawmakers want to meet with him. “Typically it’s a week or longer.”

“There are people who will come up and you can see in their face that they want to have a conversation, and instead of having a meaningful dialogue, they realize because of communication, they wave, they give me a thumbs-up, and our conversation is over,” Snow said. “It’s certainly been a barrier. It continues to be challenging.”

On Thursday, JFAC voted to change that. In next year’s budget, they voted unanimously to add a full-time sign language interpreter to the council’s office, at a cost to the state general fund next year of $91,200, with $88,600 of that ongoing. The CDHH budget makes up just under 1 percent of the budget for the state Division of Vocational Rehabilitation, which overall will see a 2.6 percent increase in state general funds next year to $8.9 million, under the budget set by the joint committee.

Snow didn’t request the funding. Responding to lawmakers’ questions at his Jan. 25 budget hearing, he offered some “historical context.”

“I’ve now been the executive director at the Council for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing for 11 years,” he said. “It has been a memorable but challenging 11 years. As an agency, we have done the best we could. We have had to look at meetings that are really important, but they are not on fire, so to speak, so we can’t attend.”

“I believe communication is not a political issue,” Snow told the lawmakers. “It’s a human issue, not only for me but for the other partners and other people. I don’t want to seem ungrateful. We have certainly done the best we could with what we had, and we want to be mindful that it’s a state resource. It isn’t just an issue for me to have access, but I have expertise to offer that other partners are not able to leverage or to access. The deaf community has a lot to offer the state.”

Snow said when he started in the position 11 years ago, he sat down with the governor’s office, “and we talked about interpreting needs at that time. Because of financial constraints at that time, the governor’s office wasn’t able to put it forward as a budgetary item.”

“The second year, we talked about it again, but the economy wasn’t such that it was feasible. After attempting this for several years, as an agency and as an individual, I just dropped that as a budget request. We’ve done the best we could to cover our communication needs out of our limited operating budget.”

The council’s mission, like that of the two other programs that fall under the state Division of Vocational Rehabilitation, is to help Idahoans with disabilities access resources that allow them to work and fully participate in society.

Snow said, “Every meeting I attend requires communication access. So there are meetings I should be at and would love to go to participate, but I’m not able to. Other people are able to have hallway conversations and develop partnerships and ideas and really strengthen those collaborative opportunities, and I don’t have that same opportunity.” He added, “Often there are meetings at the last minute, not that I’m pointing fingers at the Legislature,” which drew a laugh, “but there are times when we want to come to something and it’s an urgent issue, and I’m not able to participate. I can’t testify on those issues, I can’t provide the expertise. I wish we had an interpreter available.”

JFAC members were stunned by Snow’s comments. “We hear you,” said a visibly moved Rep. Rick Youngblood, R-Nampa, JFAC co-chair.

On Thursday, Rep. Wendy Horman, R-Idaho Falls, said, “This budget brings to mind I think one of the most lingering memories that will stay with me from my service in the Legislature, and that was Director Snow’s comments that communication is not a political issue but a human issue. His description of his inability to participate in hallway conversations, to fully participate in meetings particularly if they’re on short notice, and not being able to schedule an interpreter struck deep.”

As she proposed the budget, including the funding for the full-time interpreter, Horman said, “This budget says we heard you. And thank you, Director Snow, for the services you provide for those who are deaf and hard of hearing, and we look forward to you being able to more fully communicate with those you serve and those that you work with.”

Sen. Steve Bair, R-Blackfoot, JFAC’s Senate co-chair, thanked Horman for making the motion, which was seconded by Rep. Melissa Wintrow, D-Boise, the one who first asked Snow about the issue in January. “I don’t think that I’ve ever heard on the floor more compelling testimony as when Director Snow was speaking,” Bair said. “I think it really did touch everybody’s heart. Every person, from the governor down, heard him. I can’t believe he’s been working for the state for all these years, 11 years, without an interpreter. That’s absolutely incredible. This is a great motion.”

With that, the roll was called, and every JFAC member present voted in favor of the budget motion, which was approved, 19-0. The budget still needs House and Senate approval and the governor’s signature to become law, but budget bills rarely change once they’re set by the 20-member joint committee.

Betsy Z. Russell is the Boise bureau chief and state capitol reporter for the Idaho Press and Adams Publishing Group. Follow her on Twitter at @BetsyZRussell.

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