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After tumult, state names new commissioner for the deaf

Dr. Opeoluwa Sotonwa
Dr. Opeoluwa Sotonwa

Dr. Opeoluwa Sotonwa, an attorney, activist, and author who helped draft federal disability rights law in his native Nigeria, will take over as Massachusetts’s chief advocate for the deaf and hard of hearing, state officials said Friday, making him the first person of color to hold the post.

Sotonwa, 42, will lead the state Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing starting in March after serving more than six years as the executive director of Missouri’s commission for the deaf.

Fluent in four languages, he earned a doctorate in law and policy from Northeastern University and is a former vice president of the National Black Deaf Advocates, state officials said.

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His hiring completes a months-long search for a permanent leader at the agency, where employees and unions officials last year asked Governor Charlie Baker to address what they called a “culture of fear and uncertainty” under the former commissioner, Steven A. Florio.

State officials fired Florio in October, months after they said they began investigating allegations he admitted to staff members to wearing robes resembling Ku Klux Klan garb and making apparent Nazi salutes while in a controversial fraternity at Gallaudet University three decades earlier.

For his replacement, state officials sought someone who “understands deeply the diverse needs of the community,” Marylou Sudders, the state’s health and human services secretary said Friday.

Sotonwa is “clearly accomplished and he knows how to get things done at the state and national level,” Sudders said in a video announcing his hire.

“He’s also a warm and kind person,” she said. “Governor Baker and I are confident that he’s the right person at this time to lead the commission.”

Sotonwa lost his hearing when he was 16, according to a short biography included in “The Deaf Way II Anthology,” a collection of work by deaf or hard of hearing writers that includes a play Sotonwa wrote.

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After earning a law degree at University of Ilorin in Nigeria, he helped in the drafting and passage of Nigeria’s disability rights law, according to state officials. Sotonwa then came to the US, graduating with a masters from Howard University’s School of Law in Washington, D.C. and later attending Northeastern.

He worked for the Kentucky Commission on the Deaf and Hard of Hearing before serving as Missouri’s executive director and currently serves on the board of Telecommunication for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Inc., a national advocacy organization, state officials said.

A spokeswoman for the state’s Office of Health and Human Services declined to release a copy of his résumé Friday, saying it was a personnel record and exempt from disclosure. Sotonwa’s salary will be $135,000.

Carolyn Hjelte, the chapter president for the SEIU Local 509, cheered Sotonwa’s selection, saying it “sends a powerful message that the Baker administration is committed to diversity and listening to the needs of its workers.”

But his hire caught many in the deaf community off guard. Stephanie Hakulin, president of the Massachusetts State Association of the Deaf, said state officials did not consult advocates during the hiring process and many only learned of his selection via Facebook.

”Before Steven was hired, they were very involved with the deaf community, and had very open communication,” Hakulin said of the commission. “We wish they would really communicate. We just don’t see that in our community.”

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Still, advocates felt Sotonwa’s credentials were impressive, said BJ Wood, the agency’s founding commissioner, and they’re hopeful he could help the commission begin “healing” after Florio’s exit divided the community.

“In the community, there really are very mixed feelings about it,” said Wood. “Some felt it was the right thing to do. Some thought that the situation was unfair. We’re hoping, with the new leader, we can recover.”

Florio, who became commissioner in 2019, told members of the agency’s staff in meetings and in an e-mail in late June that he was a member of Kappa Gamma Fraternity at Gallaudet University. The university had suspended the fraternity that month after members were identified wearing blue robes with pointed hoods that resembled Ku Klux Klan garb, The Washington Post reported.

The school’s president called the fraternity the “face of systemic racism in our community.”

Florio told commission staff in the summer that he disavows his affiliation with the fraternity, and that the allegations against it are “no way a reflection of who I am or of my character.” But union officials said employees lost confidence in him after he “admitted to dressing as a Nazi and saluting while wearing garb resembling the uniforms of the Ku Klux Klan,” according to a letter they sent Baker.

Florio was put on paid administrative leave in July while state officials investigated the allegations. Patricia Ford, the agency’s deputy commissioner, has led it on an acting basis since then.

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Matt Stout can be reached at matt.stout@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mattpstout.