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Massachusetts pilot program fuels surge in after-hours interpreter requests

 Massachusetts Statehouse in Boston.
Creative Commons
The Massachusetts Statehouse in Boston, Massachusetts.

A pilot program that keeps interpreters on standby in case people who are deaf or hard of hearing need emergency communication services outside of normal business hours is in line to be funded for a full year in Gov. Maura Healey's fiscal year 2024 budget.

The After-Hours Emergency Services Program run through the Massachusetts Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing connects people to interpreters outside the commission's usual hours and is intended to ensure access to interpretation in case of emergencies like hospital stays, police stops or domestic violence situations. The program started last year and has been running as a pilot.

"Since expanding our services to include after-hours emergency services in FY23, we have seen a 52 percent increase in the number of emergency requests. From April 2022, the first month that the pilot was implemented, through February of 2023, the number of emergency requests went from four per month to over 30 per month, and these numbers are continuing to increase," Commissioner Dr. Opeoluwa Sotonwa told lawmakers at a budget hearing Tuesday.

Healey's budget would fund the Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing at $9.94 million, an increase of nearly 16% over the $8.54 million the commission received in the fiscal 2023 budget. It includes annualized funding of $347,000 for the after-hours emergency interpretation program.

Sotonwa said the funding will support an after-hours emergency coordinator and allow the commission to add incentives for after-hours communication access providers who are willing to accept emergency on-call shifts.

"We have reinvented our after-hours emergency program such that we have interpreters on standby. We have a coordinator who works with our team, individuals who are willing to be on the emergency list or on call, and they are paid a small stipend for being on standby for emergencies. If an emergency does occur, they're deployed," he said.

Sotonwa added, "We have a lot of interpreters who are preferring to work from home remotely now. So it's harder for us to cover all of these emergency situations. So we are planning to address these issues by increasing our pipeline through our workforce development program."

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