The Division of Services to the Handicapped held a "communication forum" last week.
It was designed to bring service providers, the people who use those services and state employees together to discuss concerns, answer questions and generally exchange information.The public forums are a great idea and this one, which was not the division's first, was well-attended.
But sitting in the room, listening to the discussion, I finally figured out what really bothers me about a host of meetings - including the board meetings, discussions and even interim legislative meetings I attend as part of my job.
Everyone talks in code. It's a language best described as "alphabet soup." And it's not just the Division of Services to the Handicapped or even the Department of Human Services.
As a reporter, I've long struggled with acronyms. Like John Q. Public, I attend a lot of meetings on different topics. On a good day, I know the context of the discussion and can follow most of it. But not always.
The situation becomes complicated because sometimes the letters mean different things to different groups - or in a different context.
CSBGs can't be used for the FSA because HHS said no. . . .
A father who is concerned about the future of his son, who has mental retardation and is staying at the Training School, expressed his puzzlement with a simple question: "Why am I here?"
He was given an explanation of the purpose of the forum.
I think he was saying, "I don't understand what you're talking about."
He had the uncomfortable look of someone who has been seated at a dinner table with people who don't speak English, the only language he knows.
That's not the only problem to which such meetings are prone. At a forum, people generally come to address a specific issue. Unless you have followed that issue, most of the meeting can be a waste of time.
For instance, people who operate supported workshops for mentally impaired adults asked "why we should have to pay high insurance rates to indemnify all state employees."
Someone else said that "Columbus Center won't affect what happens with group homes."
Then they talked about "what's happening at Oak Ridge."
A simple sentence each time would have put things into context for the entire audience:
- State law requires supported workshops to carry insurance that indemnifies not only on-site staff, but state employees who are also involved.
- Columbus Center is changing its location and focus to . . .
- Oak Ridge is a housing unit at the State Training School that is slated to be closed as part of the move to consolidate the school and move more people into community placements.
Simple explanations wouldn't add much time to the meeting. But it would include everyone.
Maybe I have a simplistic view of such meetings. My job as a reporter, after all, is to explain what happens at certain events or meetings. Most newspapers are written at about an eighth-grade level. Generally I think a reporter is informing people who don't already know what happened at the meeting.
As I was leaving the forum, one of the participants told me he'd look forward to reading about it in the paper; maybe he'd understand it then.
Anyone who takes the time to attend a public meeting ought to be able to understand what's being said.
This criticism is not aimed at the Division of Services to the Handicapped. It is to be applauded for holding forums at all. Too many divisions and government entities are out of touch with the public they serve. This division is very much in touch with its clients.
The complaint is directed to any bureaucracy that thinks it deserves its own language, without explanation or interpretation.
When you invite someone to dinner, you ought to speak his language. Or invite an interpreter.