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Deaf people testify against state plan to establish financial criteria for help

PIERRE -- Four South Dakotans spoke through American Sign Language at a public hearing Wednesday against state government's plans to set income criteria for deaf or hard of hearing people who want to receive devices and services.

The four -- Patty Kuglitsch, Kevin Barber, Jeff Panek and Clarke Christianson, all from the Sioux Falls area -- called for the state Department of Human Services to continue providing equipment and services for free to people who are deaf or hard of hearing.

The comments came at a formal public hearing held by the department's office of rehabilitation services.

No one spoke in favor of setting income criteria. The proposed new rules result from a law passed by the Legislature last winter at the request of Gov. Dennis Daugaard, whose parents were deaf.

The testifiers Wednesday praised the opportunity for people to receive newer types of devices such as iPads and iPhones.

But they said they didn't expect income criteria. The proposed eligibility for the devices would be a household income of 300 percent or less of the federal poverty level.

The 300 percent would be about $35,010 for one person and about $47,190 for a two-person household, based on poverty-level information on the state website.

The original version of the governor's legislation didn't refer to eligibility criteria. That provision was added in a House committee as part of a broad set of amendments.

The legislation, HB 1166, won approval in its amended form in the House 61-8 and in the Senate 34-0.

"When I received the rules I was very surprised to see the financial limitations," Christianson testified.

The South Dakota Association of the Deaf doesn't support the eligibility criteria, according to a letter delivered by Kuglitsch, the group's president.

She said eliminating the criteria would be "more advantageous" regardless whether a new device costs more than $250.

The government previously provided teletypewriter equipment without financial criteria, Kuglitsch said. Modern cell phones and other new technology carry TTY capabilities.

"Individuals should not be discriminated against based on income. This was the premise for providing TTYs without regard to income guidelines," she testified.

"Approximately 70 percent of deaf and hard of hearing are unemployed or at least underemployed and they are experiencing financial hardships as a result," she said.

At the House committee's hearing on the bill, Kuglitsch testified in favor. She and Panek testified in favor at the Senate committee hearing on the amended bill.

The department's website provides the following information about the current version of the program prior to the proposed rule changes:

"Telecommunications equipment distribution program provides telecommunication devices such as TTYs, flashing light phone ring signalers, volume amplifiers, loud ringers, TTYs with Large Visual Displays or any other equipment which fits the individual's telecommunication needs.

Who is eligible?

"Any South Dakota resident who is Deaf, Hard of Hearing, Deaf-Blind, Speech-disabled and have phone service in his/her home. Hearing or speech impairment must be verified by a doctor or audiologist."

South Dakota funds the equipment distribution program through a monthly 15-cent access fee on each local-exchange service telephone line, each cellular phone and each radio pager unit.

Kuglitsch and others said they opposed several other proposed changes. The department will make a decision at a later date on the rule proposals.

The department's decision will be subject to final clearance from the Legislature's rules review committee.