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Karen Aguilar has been running the Midwest Center on Law and the Deaf from her home in suburban Chicago since last September, when the center gave up its one-room office inside Chicago’s Loop. Bar associations and foundations had funded the nonprofit group for three years, but they like to spread the wealth — so they pulled out. With insufficient cash to commit to a lease, the center’s unpaid board members had little choice but to switch the phone lines to their program manager’s house and hope for the best. Through one-time grants and fund-raising events, they have so far managed to scrape together $3,500 each month to pay Aguilar and the phone bill. Their month-to-month struggle to stay in business will be all too familiar to most shoestring public interest groups in this sour economy. Before the money ran out, Aguilar, 31, would travel around the eight Midwestern states served by the center and perform unusual work: educating lawyers, judges and cops on the legal rights and needs of people who are deaf or hard of hearing. Aguilar, who learned how to “sign” at the age of 4 from a deaf family friend, says that few legal professionals realize that they are generally required to provide deaf people with interpreters free of charge under Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act. With no money for travel expenses, the center’s only paid employee now stays at home doing the other half of her job: responding to as many as 30 telephone calls a day. A TTY (teletype) call from an Ohio man is typical. He wanted to know how to file a complaint against a police department that had allegedly arrested him and held him for 12 hours with no interpreter and no way to call a lawyer. Other deaf people contact the center because they’re in need of a will, buying a house, or getting divorced. Aguilar refers them to attorneys who won’t shun them because they need help to communicate. Those referrals, combined with the legal training Aguilar provided in better times, make the center unique, according to Kelby Brick. A deaf attorney, Brick is associate executive director for law and advocacy at the National Association for the Deaf in Silver Spring, Md. His group, like most state and city organizations for the deaf, focuses on litigation, not training and referral. Brick says the funding climate is tough for all nonprofits that serve the deaf, regardless of focus. The Midwest Center’s board members haven’t agreed on a long-term financing strategy yet, but the plan will probably include hitting up law firms in the Midwest for several thousand dollars each. Robert Graham, managing partner of Chicago’s Jenner & Block, says he receives two or three solicitation letters every week from organizations like the Midwest Center. He says his firm sends a check “more often than not,” and steps up its giving when the economy is bad. At Winston & Strawn, the center’s odds are even better. Partner Susan Benton-Powers, chair of the firm’s charitable foundation, says that requests for financial support are almost never denied if a firm attorney is on the organization’s board. (The center’s directors include Winston partner Robert Michels, as well as partner William Schurgin of Chicago’s Seyfarth Shaw.) Benton-Powers says that 2002 was “particularly heavy on the requests.” Chicago’s Mayer, Brown, Rowe & Maw already gives the center an annual contribution of $1,000, according to Marc Kadish, director of pro bono activities. Kadish says a plug from a firm client can make a big difference when it comes to writing checks for groups like the Midwest Center. The services Aguilar provides are not likely to be replaced if the center folds. Says the national association’s Kelby Brick: “It would be a tragedy if they have to close down due to finances.” The center’s founder, Chicago lawyer Howard Rosenblum, agrees. Rosenblum, 36, lost his hearing to meningitis at the age of 2. He now chairs the center’s board of directors. “Without MCLD, deaf people in the Midwest will go back to what they have been doing before MCLD was able to provide direct services in 1999,” Rosenblum writes in an e-mail. That, he says, means reverting to “adversarial” relations between clients and lawyers who don’t appreciate the need for interpreters, or who simply refuse to serve deaf clients. Rosenblum says, “This Third-World attitude toward persons who are deaf or hard of hearing should not exist in the 21st century, but it persists in each and every one of the 50 states every day. MCLD is a means to eradicate this backward approach.”

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