Breaking Communication Barriers through Legislation
By Collin Tastet
Effective January 1, 2011, health plans are required to provide coverage for one hearing aid per hearing-impaired ear up to $2,500 per hearing aid every 36 months for covered individuals under the age of 22 years.
Recently, people have asked me to tell them what it was like to be an advocate to help get hearing aid insurance legislation passed in North Carolina. There was one problem. I am 9 years old and did not understand the word advocate until I looked it up in the dictionary. It said advocate means one that supports or promotes the interests of another. To me it was that, along with teamwork! At times it was fun and at other times I would get nervous and frustrated. This whole journey started when Ms. Joni (Dr. Joni Alberg, executive director of BEGINNINGS for Parents of Children who are Deaf or Hard of Hearing) got in touch with me in May of 2009. She asked if I would come to Raleigh, NC, and attend a North Carolina General Assembly House of Representatives meeting to talk to state legislators about my hearing loss and let them know how my hearing aids helped me. I said, "Sure," because I'd heard stories about other kid’s parents not being able to afford hearing aids and I wanted to help other kids.
After that first meeting, I was introduced to different state representatives and senators. I quickly became good friends with Sen. William R. Purcell (D) and Reps. Laura I. Wiley (R) and Bob England (D), who were co-sponsors of the bill. My dad, Arthur, and I later met with Sen. Phil Berger (R), who represents us. He is the senate minority leader and has a very busy schedule. My dad and I had to wait about four hours before I got to speak with him. In the end it was well worth the wait because I was able to tell him why this bill was important to children with hearing loss in North Carolina, and as a bonus I received a senator pin from him. Trying to catch up and speak with the different representatives and senators was frustrating at times, but in the end it was nice to talk with them because they made me feel like I was one of their friends!
After that first day at the General Assembly, Ms. Joni asked if I would like to come back again and speak at a committee meeting. I said, “Yes!” By the end of the summer I had spoken at four different committee meetings. I was a little nervous to speak at first, but each time it got easier and easier. People started to recognize me and stop to talk with me in the hallways. I think that is why Rep. England likes to joke with me about either taking his job or Sen. Purcell’s!
I was lucky enough to get private tours of the General Assembly building and even got to go out on the senate and house chamber floors. There are big gold doors leading into each chamber. During the sessions, I sat in the seats on the second floor called “the gallery.” I could see down into the first floor where the legislators sit. I felt very special to have been able to go onto the floor in this room, especially when I saw the public tours could only see the room from the second floor.
One of the funniest memories I had was right before a senate session began; Sen. A.B. Swindell (D) yelled up to me in the gallery and said, “Hey Collin, buddy! How are you doing?” and everybody looked at me. I asked my mom, "Is he allowed to do that?” She said “Yep, he's a senator!”
During the floor votes, I liked to watch the voting board from the gallery to see if anybody voted no for the bill and after the bill passed, I gave the legislators a “thumbs up” sign. I felt really honored when North Carolina’s Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton recognized me from the senate floor and the Speaker of the House Rep. Joe Hackney (D) recognized me from the house floor for my efforts in helping to get the bill passed.
When the bill finally passed both the house and senate, it was amazing how many reporters wanted to talk with me. On June 7, 2010, when I was going to go to the public signing to see North Carolina Gov. Bev Purdue sign the bill, television reporters showed up at my school to talk with me. At the public signing I really felt honored. At the beginning of the ceremony, I walked into the room right beside Gov. Perdue. I was allowed to speak after the governor gave her speech. I was even given the first pen she used to sign the bill and presented with a “Governor's Student Excellence Award.” The governor told everyone how I really made a difference in getting this bill passed, but in my eyes it was really teamwork! It involved the senators and representatives taking their time to listen to me and other kids speak about why this bill was important, along with Ms. Joni keeping me updated on everything.
During this journey I made a lot of new friends and learned a lot about how the North Carolina state government works. Rep. Wiley even spoke to my class and presented me with a certificate from the North Carolina House of Representatives that acknowledged my advocacy work for the bill. But my favorite thing I learned is when my parents ask me to help clean the house I like to tell them, “Senators do not work in the House!”
Collin Tastet is 9-years-old and is in the 4th grade. He has a moderate-to-severe hearing loss and has been wearing hearing aids since 8 weeks of age. He enjoys taking Taekwondo, where he is a probationary black belt, and playing football. He gained statewide media coverage as a leading advocate behind North Carolina House Bill 589. In July, he received an award from the Alliance of Disability Advocates, Center for Independent Living, for helping break communication barriers through legislation.