Citrus Hearing Impaired Program Services (C.H.I.P.S.)
Imagine being in a room full of people yet unable to communicate. The feelings of isolation, confusion, and loneliness are experienced by many who are deaf or hard of hearing. In Citrus County, C.H.I.P.S. is here to help.
Maureen Tambasco has seen that isolation over and over again, in adults and in her own child. As Executive Director of Citrus Hearing Impaired Program Services (C.H.I.P.S.), she, her staff, and a team of volunteers work to enhance the quality of life for deaf, hard of hearing, and speech impaired individuals. For their work, C.H.I.P.S. was awarded the Healthcare Hero for Community Outreach.
Established in 1988, C.H.I.P.S. is a non-profit agency that offers a variety of services including interpreting, advocacy, information, referrals, and sign language classes. They also are a distribution center for the FTRI (Florida Telecommunication Relay Service) free amplified phone program and can help people obtain hearing aids and other assistive devices.
Approximately 1,000,000 people over five years of age are "functionally deaf," meaning unable to hear normal conversation at all (even when using a hearing aid). About 16% of American adults have an impaired ability to hear speech, and more than 30% of Americans over age 20 have lost some high-frequency hearing.
“It’s a disability that no one can understand or feel unless they go through it,” she said. “Communication is so important, and we have wonderful technology and resources to help, but when you are in a room full of people and you can’t understand the conversation? It’s painful to see.”
As an example, she spoke about a deaf person she visited in the hospital several years ago. She found him very upset.
“The staff knew he was deaf, but they didn’t even try to communicate with him,” she said. “They’d just come into his room, flip on the lights, and grab his arm to take his blood pressure or draw blood. The people showed no facial expression. He couldn’t even get closed caption on the TV in his room.
“I went to the nurses’ station and talked to them. They couldn’t figure out why he was so unhappy. I said, ‘you stuck him in a room at the end of the hall. He has no human contact. He’s scared and lonely.’
“There needs to be more awareness regarding deaf individuals,” she added.
C.H.I.P.S. helps to increase awareness in the community through their interpreter service. MaryJo Lawson, C.H.I.P.S. Interpreter coordinator, is available 24/7 to provide appropriate interpreters to people in local hospitals, schools, government buildings, businesses, and even the jail. Many of these entities, including the Citrus County Health Department, contracts with C.H.I.P.S. to provide interpretive services.
“Under ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act), they have to provide interpretive services to deaf individuals,” said Tambasco.
From their offices in “the trains” on Crystal Street in Crystal River, C.H.I.P.S. provides services, conducts sign language classes, and offers a video relay service, a videotelecommunication service that allows deaf, hard-of-hearing, and speech-impaired individuals to communicate over video telephones in real-time, via a sign language.
Their “Risky Ears” program, geared toward school-aged children, educates children on Hearing Wellness.
The organization provides a wide variety of free amplified landline phones, provided by FTRI, and the training to use the phones. They offer sign language classes, hearing aid help, and advocacy to help deaf and hard of hearing citizens know their rights.
The non-profit relies on the generosity of the community, and civic organizations, to keep their doors open.
Although some funding comes through the interpreter service contracts, “everything we have comes from the community,” said Tambasco.
Including their location.
In 2003, Citrus Sertoma purchased two train cars from the Barnum & Bailey Circus. Sertoma, a 100-plus year-old organization, works to improve the quality of life for those at risk or affected by hearing loss through education and support. The organization moved the cars to Crystal River, next to the Crystal River Lions’ Club and planned to use the train cars as a clubhouse. But by 2009, C.H.I.P.S. was in desperate need of a home.
“We could buy a place, but couldn’t afford to renovate it,” said Tambasco. Sertoma offered C.H.I.P.S. the cars, which needed renovation.
“We had enough money to remodel, and Sertoma has been behind us all the way,” Tambasco said. “Working together with other resources is the way we succeed. We couldn’t do it without all these people, the community, and organizations.”
Tambasco has been C.H.I.P.S.’ executive director since 1997. She learned sign language to be better able to communicate with clients – a language that became even more important when she and her husband adopted a young deaf boy.
“It’s given us a whole new experience. I’d learned so much from the adult deaf, but having a deaf child turns everything around,” she said.
Now 13, Tambasco’s son, Alex, attends the Florida School for the Deaf and Blind in St. Augustine and comes home weekends and holidays. This summer, the YMCA provided him with an interpreter so he could participate in its summer youth programs. The family also went to Discovery Cove in Orlando, which also provided an interpreter.
“It’s made a world of difference,” she said. “He is a very inquisitive young man; he wants to know everything.”
Alex also attended Camp Endeavor, a two-week overnight camp sponsored by Sertoma. C.H.I.P.S. helps the camp by providing all the food for the 90 campers and their counselors.
“It’s a huge support for these kids,” Tambasco said. “It all boils down to opening the door for the deaf and hard of hearing.”