One of more than 100 bills awaiting Gov. Jay Nixon's signature would increase services for Missouri's deaf and blind community.
The bill requires the Missouri Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing to provide grants to organizations meeting the needs of individuals who are deaf and blind. The Legislature will determine funding through its annual appropriations process, but grants cannot exceed $300,000, according to the legislation.
If Nixon signs the bill, the commission will be able to fund grants for support service providers (SSPs), trained sight guides who communicate audio and visual information to people who are deaf-blind. The assistance is useful for daily life tasks such as shopping, doctor appointments, job interviews and more.
The number of Missourians who are deaf-blind is not definite, Emily Fry, an information program specialist with the commission, said in an email. Many surveys don't consider blindness and deafness together, but she said a conservative estimate brings the total to 2,000-5,000 individuals.
In a February committee hearing, Opeoluwa Sotonwa, executive director of the Missouri Deaf and Hard of Hearing Commission, said SSPs give those who are deaf-blind greater opportunities for independence and the support necessary for them to "reach their full potential."
Larry Hoard, a 60-year-old Fulton man who is deaf and blind, also testified in favor of the bill at the committee hearing. He has been assisted by family and friends, who act as his SSPs, for purposes of transportation, walking and minimal communication assistance, he said in an email.
With the help of an SSP, Hoard was able to volunteer, shop, go to the library, exercise at the YMCA and go to a movie.
"I could be an active participant instead of a passive observer; I could help others instead of just receiving help; and I could be useful instead of a burden," he said.
Senate President Pro Tem Ron Richard and House Speaker Todd Richardson are signing the passed bills today. Those bills are anticipated to be delivered to the governor's office this week, said Scott Holste, Nixon's press secretary.
Earlier this month, Sotonwa told the News Tribune the commission would oversee the organizations it contracts with for SSPs. The commission's goal, he added, is to equally spread the services statewide.
"Most likely we anticipate working with independent living centers since they are located across the state," Sotonwa said. "(Organizations) would be able to hire (SSPs) and then we would be able to work with them."
More than 20 states have similar legislation, he said. Sotonwa expects the commission to collaborate with the state's Vocational Rehabilitation service to potentially hire unemployed individuals who are deaf as SSPs. In addition to state funding, he said the commission will seek federal funding to support the SSP program.