Legal center for deaf loses money, could shut down

February 13, 2012 11:25:54 AM PST
The first and only legal center for deaf and hard-of-hearing people could close because of a lack of funds.

The not-for-profit Midwest Center on Law and the Deaf started 10 years ago to help bridge the gap between the deaf and hard of hearing community and the justice system.

Without such services, members of that community could have difficulty finding attorneys who are willing to work with them.

Karen Aguilar, executive director of MCLD, and Rachel Arfa, an attorney for deaf and hard of hearing and member of MCLD's board, are discussing cases.

"Every year, we probably have a little over 800 cases of information, advocacy and referral" Aguilar said. "It's a unique attorney referral service because all of the attorneys on our referral list know what to do when they have a deaf client."

"They're not all pro-bono attorneys; we do have some paying clients," Aguilar added.

In addition to attorney referral services, MCLD also educates consumers and the legal community with a DVD called Your Day in Court.

The biggest challenge with MCLD has been getting attorneys to provide sign language interpreter for clients.

"Most attorneys don't know that they have to provide accommodations for a deaf or hard-of-hearing client. Most of our clients require a sign language interpreter to communicate with their attorneys and in court. So, we advocate for the rights of our clients," said Aguilar.

"Virtually, that's not something that they teach in law school. They should," said Arfa.

Since MCLD started, it has been supported by private foundations and individuals.

"Our funding has dried up. May or June the center will close," Aguilar said.

MCLD representatives say they need $60,000 to stay open.

Another MCLD board member is Bill Schurgin, partner at Seyfarth Shaw LLP.

"I think the problem is, perhaps, some law firms are part of different types of pro-bono activities. Our firm has a commitment to MCLD, and not only as a firm, but we also make a corporate contribution each year," Schurgin said.

Victims advocate at Chicago Hearing Society Michele Cunningham uses MCLD services for her clients.

"There are other lawyers who might not know how to use an interpreter with a deaf client. So, they'll turned down a deaf client. So, I contact MCLD to put them in touch with a lawyer who is familiar with working with the deaf community," Cunningham said.

If MCLD does not get funded:

"I wouldn't know who to advocate for the client who needs an interpreter or if a lawyer would not cooperate with them, and MCLD is always my backup," said Cunningham.

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