When Businesses and Bureaucracies Aren’t Deaf-friendly, Advocacy Is Required

Every fully grown person needs to advocate for themselves in this world because that’s a sign that you are an adult, and if you don’t push for your rights, no one else will. This is a lesson I tried to model for my children as they grew up.

When you’re a mother or father, it’s part and parcel with the parenting job to advocate for and protect your children and their interests. When your child has a disability or special needs, the task of advocating can’t end when your offspring becomes an adult, even if you’ve successfully done the wise thing and taught him or her how to advocate for themselves.

Why? The world isn’t fair and underdogs sometimes need help pushing back. Really everyone could use an advocate to work with them, but most of us can’t afford to have a lawyer on retainer or some other type of professional guru to advise us as we navigate everyday life. So when your loved one with unique challenges needs advocacy assistance, no matter the age, you’re probably going to want to take on the responsibility, don the armor, and go to battle. Don’t think twice. Do it.

Going to Battle with a Bank

Not to pat myself on the back too much and too enthusiastically, but I’ve done this several times for my daughter Miranda, who was born profoundly deaf a few decades ago. Even as a young adult, I think she appreciates that I am her consigliere when it comes to dealing with the bureaucracy and business worlds, which, in general, though there are exceptions, are not very friendly to Deaf Community members.

For example, once a major bank tried to drain Miranda’s checking and saving accounts with unwarranted fees because she had a negative balance in one of the accounts she set up when she went away to college — far from home — in Washington, DC. Miranda was so upset because she had money, needed it, and didn’t understand why the bank was gouging her.

I got involved and worked the bank’s customer service phone lines. I was able to figure out that when Miranda set up her accounts at the bank near her college, that the representative/clerk person established a checking account and two savings accounts. Why on God’s green earth would this freshman in college need two savings accounts?! Furthermore, the accounts were set up so that the checking account was linked to one of the savings accounts but not the one that held most of Miranda’s money.

I Went Off

When the bank’s customer service rep tried to defend the obvious screw up by the local branch saying Miranda wanted two savings accounts, I went off. I demanded to speak to a supervisor and asked how they could possibly defend their error at the expense of a young person with a disability. Fortunately, we were able to have an ASL interpreter listening to the conversation and provide Miranda with the dialogue via a videophone. It didn’t take the supervisor long to understand that his organization was very much in the wrong and that by not correcting the problem they could have a potential public relations issue. All the fees were removed and the accounts were corrected immediately. Case closed, lesson learned.

My heart hurts for all the vulnerable people that are taken advantage of by big organizations and don’t have an advocate and can’t afford to hire one. It would be good if special education schools offered courses that would help students better understand bureaucracies and navigating them.

Another example from Miranda’s life happened in the past few months, when she rented a vehicle to move her belongings from D.C. to her new home in the Midwest. She planned on driving a with her friend Stephanie. I know Miranda turned down the rental car’s offering of insurance because she got insurance online via the same company she got auto insurance when she’d rent a Zipcar for a day.

The Accident

The girls took turns driving and were having no problems until they reached Ohio, when Stephanie was driving the van and made a U-turn. A woman driving an older truck, ran into the van’s rear driver’s side wheel. The damage was extensive enough that the vehicle needed to be towed. The police on the scene cited Stephanie as the cause of the accident for not keeping “the vehicle under control.”

When Miranda tried to get another vehicle at the local branch of the rental car company, they refused to provide her with one, saying Stephanie was not an “authorized driver.” So Miranda ended up having to rent a van from a different company. What’s galling is that the only reason Stephanie was not an authorized driver is because she wasn’t listed on the contract Miranda signed when she picked up the rental in D.C.

The question I had was why wouldn’t Miranda have listed Stephanie on the contract? Miranda knew that she was going to share the driving on the relocation trip with Stephanie for a long time. So if she was asked by the rental agent if there were other drivers, she would have said yes and provided Stephanie’s name. Guess what? Miranda was never asked. This was probably due to the communication challenge with the rental car agent not knowing ASL or having the time or sense to write back and forth with Miranda.

Things got really disconcerting for Miranda when the insurance company she signed up with to cover the rental van refused to pay the repair bills, citing “unauthorized driver.” So the rental car enterprise sent Miranda a $3600 repair bill (that was inflated by $1000 with “vehicle out of service” charges).

The “Bat-Signal” Was Sent Out for Dad

Miranda sent out the “Bat-signal” and I jumped on the phone with rental car company’s accident claims representative. I basically made the case that the insurance company wasn’t paying the claim because the rental car said Stephanie wasn’t an authorized driver, but the only reason Stephanie was not listed on the contract is because the rental agent didn’t ask Miranda — because Miranda’s deaf.

The accident claims rep was very empathetic and when the light went on she said, “Oh. I see.” I didn’t even have to “threaten” that I’d write a blog about the how a big rental car company was taking advantage of Deaf people. Imagine my delight a few months later, when Miranda forwarded an email to me that read: “The claim has been paid in full. This case is closed.”

Miranda asked if I had paid the claim. I said no but that it was great news. Then Miranda said, “Am I debt free?” When I said, yes, she couldn’t quite believe it and asked “Are you sure you read it correctly?” Yes. She was so relieved and I reviled in another victory over “The Man” or as my father, the advocate I learned from, might say, “The Bastards.”

There will be more battles, but once Miranda gets a few more under her belt I’m sure she’ll be able to win more of these kind of victories on her own…and maybe start advocating for others, too.