Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Theater of the Deaf is in trouble

Many years ago when I was just starting out in journalism I worked for a chain of weekly papers in Connecticut. One story that I particularly enjoyed writing was a feature about a unique theatrical group based in West Hartford that specializes in performing for deaf and hearing-impaired children. The National Theater of the Deaf put on several performances in the towns that I covered and it was a pure delight to watch the children enjoying lively theatrical performances that were geared specifically towards their special needs. Most of the actors in the troupe were also deaf.

So I was saddened last week to see this story in the NYT about the group’s recent financial troubles.

For nearly four decades it has provided a cultural bridge between the hearing and the hearing-impaired, but unless federal and state agencies come to some agreement about its financing, the National Theater of the Deaf may be unable to carry on much longer.

The NTD’s financial woes first became critical in late 2004 when the Bush Education Department notified them that the Republican Congress had eliminated a grant program that had been contributing $687,000 a year to the theater’s coffers.
Recently, though, Connecticut state lawmakers were preparing to come to the rescue with $200,000 in emergency funds intended to keep the theater going for another year or two. Unfortunately, the emergency funding is being held up after the inspector general for the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) informed the head of NTD that they were calling in a $75,000 debt the theater owes on a 15-year-old federal grant.

Apparently, the NTD ran into financial difficulties in the early 1990s when a former executive director mismanaged some funds and left the theater unable to pay the old debt. The fact that it is being called in now is highly questionable. The NEA’s role is to promote the arts, not to enforce old budget deals that would result in shuttering one of the only theaters for the deaf in the country.
I, of course, blame President Bush for the NTD’s current fiscal crisis due to his mismanagement of the national budget - the tax cuts for the rich and the exploding deficits - that obviously led to the elimination of the grant program. But I am also suspicious that the NEA’s inspector general may also be a Bush appointee who is carrying out some twisted right-wing agenda with this sudden desire to collect on an old debt that should have been forgiven long ago. I could be wrong, but even if the guy is not a Bush appointee, surely the administration could do something to bail the NTD out of this predicament if they gave a damn about anything or anyone other than their wealthy campaign contributors and their massive tax cuts.

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