- David Shaw
- Nick Russo
Read this story, translated into American Sign Language by Rae Heller, on YouTube.
When Patricia Lambert started her recovery in 2004, she went to Alcoholics Anonymous every day. The goal was 90 days of meetings, or "90 in 90" — a common practice for AA newcomers. It took a year and three 90 in 90s before Lambert felt comfortable calling herself sober.
"It saved my life," the Wallingford resident said, as relayed by American Sign Language interpreter Elizabeth Fox. "If not for them, I probably would still be drinking to death. I'd be in trouble with the law — like, who knows?"
More than 15 years later, Lambert still relies on AA to maintain her sobriety. But today, a 90 in 90 would be out of the question because, as a Deaf Vermonter whose first language is ASL, Lambert's choice of meetings is extremely limited.
Longtime interpreters and Deaf advocates say they used to receive funding from the Vermont Division of Alcohol & Drug Abuse Programs for ASL interpreters at recovery meetings such as AA and Narcotics Anonymous. Minutes from a meeting of the Vermont Interpreter Referral Service Advisory Committee indicate that the organization requested $35,000 for these services in 2007 but missed the deadline to receive funding.
But the Vermont Department of Health disputes this recollection. A spokesperson told Seven Days that the division previously provided funding for interpreters for treatment, not for peer support groups such as AA, and could not provide information about why the funding was stopped.
In the years since, about 15 interpreters have been donating time to keep some meetings accessible. But Vermont's small corps of interpreters is stretched thin, at times filling requests with noncredentialed signers or those in training.
Between the lack of funding and the COVID-19 pandemic, Lambert's AA schedule has been whittled down to one in-person meeting a week. There's no interpreter, so she gets by with pen and paper and a friend who knows a bit of ASL and oral translation. If an interpreter were consistently there, she'd attend every day.
"Even if there's not interpreters, I still go. It's what I need to maintain, you know; this is forever," she said. "Yeah, it's really frustrating to not have full access like I used to."
Lambert and other Deaf Vermonters in recovery say they need better access not only to meetings but also to mental health counseling and addiction treatment — and they want the state to invest in making it possible.
The Americans With Disabilities Act requires that governments, businesses and nonprofits provide communication accommodations for people with disabilities, such as printed materials in braille, ASL interpreters or real-time closed captioning. But if providing an aid or service causes an "undue burden," private organizations have more leeway — and that's where things get murky.
"The thought is typically that AA should be self-sufficient. But the cost of an interpreter is prohibitive," said longtime Vermont interpreter Cory Brunner. Rates for an interpreter range from about $40 to $65 an hour with a two-hour minimum, she said. "There's no way that a small little home group can afford to pay an interpreter."
The Yolanda Henry Community Fund provides assistance for events not covered by the ADA, such as weddings and birthday parties. Some residents use the fund for AA or other support groups, but they're limited to two requests per year, so the money doesn't go far.
Two of the 11 AA districts in Vermont collect donations to pay interpreters a discounted rate of $50 per meeting; the funds primarily come from AA participants themselves. Rae Heller, an interpreter who helps coordinate this effort, said that while it's heartening to see the grassroots effort, relying on individual participants to fund access is not necessarily sustainable.
"There needs to be a system of support," Heller said.
Laura Siegel, director of the state's Deaf, Hard-of-Hearing and DeafBlind Services, said she's working with the Vermont Recovery Network to explore grant options for interpretation or closed captioning at meetings. Since her hire in April 2021, Siegel has also convened a mental health work group to tackle systemic barriers to treatment.
Money isn't the only obstacle to making meetings more accessible, Siegel noted.
"It's both lack of funding and [that] our interpreting pool is relatively small," she wrote by email. "I've been working with stakeholders to figure out how to improve that interpreting pool."
For Burlington-area native Alice, who preferred the use of a pseudonym, not having her pick of interpreters is a struggle. She has requested volunteers for AA meetings but became frustrated with the "mishmash" of interpreters, some of whom were noncredentialed or unfamiliar with the language of recovery.
"I need people who are fluent in ASL. And sometimes [with] the interpreters we have, I have to repeat myself, or they don't understand the lingo, so I have to sign slower," Alice said, as interpreted by Fox. "And I'm like, This isn't right ... It's not my pace. I want to communicate how I want to communicate and not have to stifle myself."
Now she attends two meetings a week: one on Zoom with an interpreter and one in person with a video interpreter. Alice prefers live meetings, and while the video interpretation works OK, she said, it's not ideal for the fellowship aspect of AA. When participants hang around afterward, Alice usually just closes her laptop and goes home because it's too difficult for the video interpreter to hear amid the chatter.
She believes that the state should fund not only interpreters for meetings but also counseling and rehab programs specifically for the Deaf community. For now, she feels like she's navigating recovery on her own — with the resources she needs just out of reach.
"They've got speaker meetings; they've got people talking about their own recovery and what their hopes and dreams are. And I would love that. It's just, I'm stuck," Alice said.
Nick Russo never gave much thought to addiction until he was 21. He'd had a "good time" in his teens, he said, but didn't see pot and partying as a big deal. Then, after injuring his back, the Brattleboro resident was prescribed opioid painkillers.
"I'd never really understood the concept and that your body is so heavily reliant upon that. And the doctor never explained it to me, either. Like, what are the heads-ups, the warnings about opiates?" Russo asked, as interpreted by Fox. "And it got bad."
The painkillers led him to heroin, which he used heavily for about a decade. After moving to Vermont from western Massachusetts, he was in and out of recovery for a year before going into detox at the Brattleboro Retreat. With the help of medication-assisted treatment, he's now been sober for about four and a half years.
According to Dr. Alex Wilkins, a postdoctoral fellow and researcher at the Deaf YES: Center for Deaf Empowerment and Recovery at UMass Chan Medical School, gaps in knowledge about health and addiction are common in the Deaf community. That's partly because people who are Deaf or hard of hearing may have fewer opportunities to learn about these subjects in passing, such as by overhearing their parents discuss family medical history.
It's one of several factors contributing to the prevalence of addiction in the Deaf population, which reports nearly three times the rate of lifetime problem drinking compared to the hearing population, according to a study published in the journal Substance Abuse in 2018.
In addition to discrimination and stigma, Deaf people can face trauma, communication barriers and isolation from hearing peers or family members, Wilkins said. Getting into treatment can be traumatizing in itself, since many hearing people aren't well informed about Deaf culture.
"There are very few providers with specific knowledge and training in how to work with Deaf clients," Wilkins wrote by email. "Untrained clinicians often adopt a medical view of 'hearing impairment'; yet, most Deaf clients do not view themselves as 'impaired,' but as members of a rich community with shared experience, history, and culture."
Russo said a local rehab program reprimanded him not for using but for skipping a meeting at the rehab to attend a Deaf support meeting and softball tournament. The center hadn't been providing interpreters.
"I tried to explain that, as a Deaf person, we have different needs than the general population. You cannot assume that we're going to go to your meetings without interpretation," he said. "And even if you have interpretation, that's fine, but I need to be with my people who understand me, my culture and my language for the social, emotional components."
Alice encountered similar barriers when she was arrested for drunk driving shortly before she went into recovery. Her hands were restrained, leaving her unable to sign.
"They arrested me, incarcerated me — I was in a cell," Alice said. "And with my hands cuffed in a cell, I can't communicate. Like, how am I going to communicate in my native language? It was terrible, really terrible."
This cultural disconnect can lead Deaf people to distrust health professionals or law enforcement, making them less likely to seek help.
A lack of support services — both for recovery and in general — can also lead to "Deaf flight." With the 2014 closure of two Brattleboro organizations — the Austine School for the Deaf and the Vermont Center for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing — the community lost a major hub and source of employment, according to Brunner. She estimates that about half of her Deaf friends left the state shortly thereafter.
Massachusetts is among the states with a more robust network of services, thanks in part to its state agency, the Massachusetts Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing. The commission employs a statewide coordinator for recovery services and offers daily Zoom recovery meetings in ASL, as well as a Deaf recovery coach program.
By contrast, Vermont has just one Deaf recovery coach, according to Brunner, and mental health counselors who can sign fluently are few and far between. That's one reason Russo recently enrolled at Community College of Vermont — to help fill the void.
"My goal is to become a counselor, because you never know. Someday there might be other Deaf people in recovery that need support and need resources. So can I expand upon that?" Russo said.
"And the only way resources expand is if Deaf people are willing to say, 'Hey, I'm an addict. Hey, I've got an issue. Hey, let's work together.'"