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12 April 2006

US funds vanish for theater of the deaf

A 2000 production of Dylan Thomas'
"A Child's Christmas in Wales"
by the National Theater of the Deaf.
(Photo from theatrical lighting designer
Susan Hamburger.)

The New York Times
Wednesday 12 April 2006

Deaf Theater Troupes
Reel From Federal Cuts


Several deaf-theater groups are struggling to stay afloat after the federal government mysteriously cut funds for cultural programs for the deaf around the country 16 months ago.

Officials at the Department of Education, which administered a the program that distributed some $2 million a year in grants, said they did not see the change coming and did not know who in Congress had ordered the cut in December 2004. "All we know is that we no longer have the authority" to award those grants, said Lou Danielson, the research director for the Office of Special Education Programs.

Congressional aides in the offices of Senators Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut and Tom Harkin of Iowa, both Democrats who have been trying to reinstate the funds, said they had no idea who pulled the plug or why.

The program was part of landmark legislation that promised people with disabilities equal educational opportunities. But without the grants, the affected organizations, which produce theatrical fare seen in schools, libraries and other public places throughout the country, are worried about staying solvent.

The National Theater of the Deaf, based in West Hartford, Connecticut, the group that many credit with pioneering the field, had been getting $687,000 a year from Washington until the last of its federal grants ran out in mid-2005. Since 1967, it has been producing shows that feature deaf and hearing actors who communicate in a combination of American Sign Language and spoken English. The company estimates that its shows have been seen by 3.5 million people throughout the world. Now the theater has gone two years without putting on a show for adults and without conducting its summer training academy for deaf and hard-of-hearing actors.

"Right now, we're looking just to keep the theater alive," said Paul L. Winters, the group's executive director. "It's a national treasure that we would hate to lose."

In North Hollywood, Calif., the Deaf West Theater Company, which won critical acclaim for its adaptation of the Tony Award-winning musical "Big River," which went to Broadway in 2003, is having to make do without the $800,000 a year that Washington was sending its way. When the show toured Washington after playing on Broadway, the first lady, Laura Bush, included it in a special presidential gala last summer, where both she and the education secretary, Margaret Spellings, praised it generously.

"Somebody, somewhere, must have been looking for every penny they could, because it's not a lot of money," said Deaf West's managing director, Bill O'Brien, referring to the $2 million that Washington was doling out each year to qualified cultural programs for the deaf. Other community and educational organizations in or near New York, Chicago, Hartford, Seattle, San Francisco and Washington had also received five- and six-figure grants and are now feeling the pinch.

The money they lost was cut from the 2004 reauthorization bill for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which had allowed the Office of Special Education Programs to award discretionary grants to organizations that provide cultural experiences that "enrich the lives of deaf and hard-of-hearing children and adults." That group, according to federal estimates, can range anywhere from a small fraction of 1 percent of the population up to about 3 percent, depending on the extent of the hearing loss; if everyone who reports any hearing difficulty is included, the estimates rise as high as 14 percent.

The Dec. 22, 2004, e-mail message that notified Dr. Winters of the impending change offered no rationale for it, but closed with a cheery "Holiday Greetings!"

Since then, he has been trying to keep his organization afloat. Not only did he put himself on furlough to cut his pay last year from $75,000 to $48,500, but he also takes his turn with the scrub brush every fifth week to clean toilets at the cottage his theater company leases for its headquarters from the American School for the Deaf in West Hartford.

Financial statements show he has cut costs to $560,000 in the fiscal year that ended on March 31, 2005, from the $1 million that was spent in fiscal 2004, his first year at the helm. Since then, he has furloughed staff members whenever schools were closed to rein in the payroll, and he forgives his deaf colleagues who refer to him in American Sign Language with the same slashing motion that denotes the word "ax."

Today, his company's slimmed-down theatrical offerings revolve mostly around the Little Theater of the Deaf, which stages children's shows that can be understood by the hearing and the hearing-impaired. At a recent performance at New City Elementary School in Rockland County, N.Y., students had prepared for the event by learning about American Sign Language; they practiced applauding by fluttering their fingers overhead. The show was called "Fingers Around the World -- Next Stop: South of the Border," and the dialogue veered from spoken English and Spanish to American Sign Language and Mexican Sign Language.

"Are you a talking cactus?" Naomi Ekperigin asked Christopher DeSouza, who took on extra parts in the show to save the cost of an additional cast member.

"I'm a signing cactus," he corrected her.

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