'I was heard': New Milford mom fights for meetings to become accessible to those with hearing loss

Photo of Currie Engel
Jennifer Hauschild, of New Milford, has been asking for important virtual town meetings be accessible for those who are deaf or hearing impaired like herself. Friday, February 5, 2021, in New Milford, Conn.

Jennifer Hauschild, of New Milford, has been asking for important virtual town meetings be accessible for those who are deaf or hearing impaired like herself. Friday, February 5, 2021, in New Milford, Conn.

H John Voorhees III / Hearst Connecticut Media

She held the paper up to the screen, on and off, for well over an hour.

“I’m deaf, please turn on the closed captioning,” it read. She scribbled her email at the bottom of the page, as well. The New Milford Board of Education meeting droned on— without closed captioning.

The next meeting, the same thing happened.

“I was there, I could see myself, but I didn’t understand anything,” said Jennifer Hauschild, a New Milford resident.

Hauschild, 34, was diagnosed with bilateral hearing loss at a young age. Hearst Connecticut Media conducted this interview using a third-party translator.

But thanks to Hauschild’s efforts and some help from neighbors, Joe and Meredith Quaranta, New Milford officials have taken steps to make their meetings more accessible. The town council and Board of Education will begin to use closed captioning at their meetings.

When she got the news, Hauschild started to cry.

“This is happening,” she said.

As a single mother to 5-year-old Kariann, Hauschild usually approaches her disability with a can-do attitude, but the pandemic has made certain things more difficult— especially knowing what is going on with, and having a say in, her daughter’s education, she said.

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, state and local governments must provide equally effective communication to those who are deaf or hard of hearing, as those who are not.

Accessibility has become especially important during a national health crisis, and virtual meetings and masks provide more barriers than ever to those who are hard of hearing.

The National Association of the Deaf won a suit against the Trump administration this fall requiring American Sign Language interpreters at COVID briefings. Recently, the White House included its own ASL interpreter for the first time at its press conferences.

But the New Milford town and Board of Education meetings had not provided options for Hauschild to participate or understand what was going on.

Hauschild uses sign language and reads lips to communicate. Her daughter is not deaf, but Hauschild has difficulty communicating with the school and helping her young daughter with online learning. The closed captioning on the school computers was difficult and weren’t reliable, Hauschild said.

“My anxiety went through the roof,” Hauschild said. “It was just a mess.”

This was not just an issue for those who are deaf, but also those with hearing loss.

In the United States, an estimated 14.3 percent of Americans over 12 have some form of hearing loss in both ears, according to the Cochlear Center for Hearing and Public Heath at Johns Hopkins. A quarter of people over 60 and half of people over 70 have hearing loss.

Struggling to help her daughter with virtual school and events on Zoom, Hauschild said she reached out to New Milford School Superintendent Alisha DiCorpo and the mayor.

“I reached out to all these people and I was continuously ignored,” Hauschild said. “All of this, going on for a year and a half, where is my voice?”

DiCorpo said in an email that they received the accommodation request from Hauschild in mid-January and that the district had already been looking into platforms that offered closed captioning. The changes were first implemented at a Feb. 2 board meeting.

DiCorpo said all school communications go through email, phone and text so there are multiple ways to access the information.

Mayor Pete Bass said he doesn’t think he heard about this issue prior to a recent town council meeting, but is ensuring that all the town council’s Zoom accounts are accessible with closed captioning starting Feb. 8.

Joe, left, and Meredith Quaranta with Jennifer Hauschild, right, of New Milford. Hauschild has been asking for important virtual town meetings be accessible for those who are deaf or hearing impaired like herself. Joe Quaranta, a friend and neighbor, brought up the issue at the New Milford town meeting. Friday, February 5, 2021, in New Milford, Conn.

Joe, left, and Meredith Quaranta with Jennifer Hauschild, right, of New Milford. Hauschild has been asking for important virtual town meetings be accessible for those who are deaf or hearing impaired like herself. Joe Quaranta, a friend and neighbor, brought up the issue at the New Milford town meeting. Friday, February 5, 2021, in New Milford, Conn.

H John Voorhees III / Hearst Connecticut Media

Deciding to speak up

After a visit with her mother this winter, Hauschild was determined to remedy the situation and ask for what she needed.

“As a single mother, you have to be strong. And there’s a lot of barriers, especially not being able to hear,” she said. “If there’s a barrier, I figured out a way to overcome it. Sometimes it’s successful, sometimes it’s not. But I don’t let that stop me.”

She reached out to Joe and Meredith Quaranta, who are heavily involved in community outreach efforts in New Milford. They had never met each other, but Hauschild had heard the Quarantas were good at getting things done around town.

“Jennifer reached out to us organically,” Joe Quaranta said.

The couple spoke with Hauschild for about an hour, listening while she told them about her medical condition and its effect on her life. Joe Quaranta told her there was a town council meeting coming up and asked if he could bring up the issue there. Hauschild agreed.

After their conversation, he called councilwoman Mary Jane Lundgren, alerting her to the situation and asking to make a public statement pointing out that the virtual meetings were not ADA accessible to deaf or hard of hearing residents like Hauschild.

“Quite frankly, it’s the law,” Joe Quaranta said. “But outside of that, its just an overall, simple community improvement.”

After he spoke at the town meeting, the council agreed to the request.

“It’s pretty obvious that we’ve never had an interpreter or had any captions on our conversations at town council, so for the hearing impaired that’s an issue, and I don’t want it to become an ADA issue either,” Lundgren said during the meeting.

The Board of Education has followed suit, attempting to make their meetings ADA accessible for the hearing impaired, as well.

“Without hesitation the Board of Education recognizes the need to accommodate this and we want our community to be inclusive,” chairwoman Wendy Faulenbach said. “We value that input and request, so we’re going to take care of it.”

While it’s a small step, it’s one that helps Hauschild and other hard of hearing community members participate and stay informed.

“Twenty-four hours later, I was heard,” Hauschild said.