April was Financial Literacy Month, and National Disability Institute (NDI) understands that access to financial information is critical in growing a person’s financial capability. Since 2004, NDI has partnered with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and the National Association for the Deaf to expand awareness of and access to free tax preparation and financial capability in the Deaf community. As a result of these partnerships, the Boston Deaf Task Force was formed.
Two of the people on that task force recently sat down to discuss why communication accessibility is so important for people in the Deaf community. Jamie Robinson of National Disability Institute spoke with Lori Siedman of DEAF, Inc. to learn from her insights as a DeafBlind advocate. Lori offers Deaf, Hard of Hearing, Late-Deafened and DeafBlind individuals training in independent living skills, including peer counseling, benefits advisement and housing assistance. She also plays a key role in national partnerships that promote financial equality for the Deaf community.
Jamie Robinson (JR): What are your personal experiences as a DeafBlind person accessing financial services?
Lori Siedman (LS): It is not positive. If I go into a bank to talk with someone about a problem with my account or information about a loan, there is often miscommunication. Written financial materials such as housing applications can be complex, especially for Deaf individuals whose primary language is American Sign Language (ASL), not English. Writing back and forth about important financial matters is not sufficient and can lead to feeling like I am missing critical information to make informed decisions. Understanding the big picture is just not enough; Deaf people need all the pieces of information when dealing with their finances. Sign language interpreters are rarely provided in interactions such as applying a loan or buying a new car and as a result, many Deaf people leave these situations feeling overwhelmed and confused.
JR: How can communication access be improved in financial services?
LS: In order for Deaf individuals to have equal access to financial information, qualified sign language interpreters are needed. Banks, housing agencies, car dealerships benefits counselors and tax preparation sites should know how/when to arrange qualified sign language interpreters through their state agency for Deaf/Hard-of-Hearing. Financial information is just as important as medical information, where sign language interpreters are also a must.
Another strategy may be to offer online video resources that show Deaf people signing various financial terms in ASL. ASL videos may describe such financial terms associated with credit reports, loans or housing applications, and banking/savings accounts. Being able to access information in native ASL can help Deaf people feel more confident when they see these words and concepts on paperwork and more connected in their interactions with financial personnel.
JR: The IRS collaborated with the Deaf community to implement this strategy and created an online series of tax terms in ASL that has been well-received by Deaf taxpayers and ASL interpreters. What is your experience as part of the Boston Deaf Task Force in expanding free tax preparation in the Deaf community?
LS: I coordinated ASL tax days at DEAF, Inc. for many years. Joining the Boston Deaf Task Force served as a bridge to reach even more Deaf people because of the partnerships with NDI, the Boston Tax Help Coalition and the Mayor’s Commission on Disability. Our team shares space, tax preparers, cost for sign language interpreters and other resources needed to host multiple ASL tax days in Boston. Equal access to free tax preparation means that when a Deaf person sits down with certified tax preparer and a qualified interpreter, he/she not only fully understands the process of filing taxes, but can ask questions, be curious, comfortable, trusting, and ultimately empowered to learn more about his/her finances. The Task Force is working to ensure that taxes serves as a bridge to other financial education for the Deaf community as well. This is our third year working together, and every year gets better!
JR: Can you share more about your involvement in the Tax Opportunity Network (TON) and how this opportunity has boosted communication access nationally?
LS: I was nominated to be part of the Taxpayer Opportunity Network (TON) last year. TON brings together organizations and individuals who provide tax assistance to low-income communities at no or little cost to taxpayers. The Network shares critical information for effective service delivery, connecting expert practitioners across the country and providing tools and resources. Since I have joined TON, I have had opportunities to travel to Washington, DC and meet with others who work in free tax preparation. We brainstorm how to reach and serve more taxpayers, as well as how to better educate our own communities on the benefits of free tax preparation and valuable tax credits.
Over time, I have shared information with TON members about effective communication access in the services they provide, as well as in their interactions with me as a DeafBlind person. We have all shared perspectives and learned from each other.
JR: What would you say effective communication access to financial services means to a Deaf individual?
LS: When equal communication access is available, it feels like I am an equal human being. I am a peer, as opposed to feeling oppressed or less than. I am confident in understanding what’s best for me and making informed decisions. I feel more confident in my overall financial well-being.
Lori Siedman is DeafBlind and works at DEAF, Inc, a community-based organization that provides a variety of services to the Deaf community in the Greater Boston area.
Jamie Robinson is the Financial Empowerment and Workforce Manager at National Disability Institute. She holds a master’s degree in Deafness Rehabilitation from New York University and is fluent in American Sign Language (ASL). She resides in the Greater Boston Area, and is actively involved in expanding access and awareness within the d/Deaf, Deaf-Blind and hard-of-hearing community throughout New England.