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Members of Congress are joining with the deaf community to bring more deaf interns and staffers to Capitol Hill.
In February, Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Chairman Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and ranking member Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., began monthly lectures that educate senators and their staffs about deaf culture and teach basic phrases in American Sign Language. The Congressional Deaf Caucus in the House is working to raise awareness with members of Congress who represent the nation’s 63 residential schools for the deaf, and encouraging those offices to hire deaf interns and staffers.
Of the thousands of Hill staffers, five are deaf, according to the Deaf Staff Caucus, which represents those aides. Three work in the House and two work in the Senate.
“How can Congress be a true a representation — true representatives — of our country if they only have five deaf employees? It’s just not possible,” said Matt Bennett, a deaf intern in California Democratic Rep. Mark Takano’s office.
Takano created the Congressional Deaf Caucus with Rep. Kevin Yoder, R-Kan., in December. “We want to educate members of Congress about disabilities issues,” said Takano. “But we also want to provide young deaf students with the opportunity to actually work on the Hill and do that advocacy themselves.”
Takano joined fellow lawmakers and dozens of members of the deaf community at a reception in the Cannon House Office Building on March 12, celebrating the Deaf Caucus and the 150th anniversary of Gallaudet University.
Gallaudet is a federally chartered university and the only liberal arts university in the world dedicated to educating the deaf and hard of hearing.
A number of deaf interns and staffers attending the reception said they hope the caucus would raise awareness about issues facing their community.
Eleanor Mullen, a deaf legislative correspondent for Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, said that while she has had a positive experience in Young’s office, she faced some resistance while interviewing for other jobs on the Hill.
Mullen encouraged offices to “be more open-minded about having deaf staffers instead of being worried about how somebody’s going to use the phone or communicate with other staff members.”
Mullen said she uses an interpreter a couple hours a week, but generally communicates with fellow staffers through lip reading and speaking to them directly.
Offices that hire deaf staff members or have deaf visitors can acquire an interpreter through the Office of Congressional Accessibility Services. “We try to make it as simple as possible,” said the OCAS’ David Hauck, who explained that congressional staffers can just call the office and request an interpreter when they need one.
“We can email, we can have interpreters. It’s not that hard to communicate especially with all of the technology that exists now,” said Claire Viall, a legislative assistant for Takano.
Viall’s uncle is deaf, her father is hard of hearing and both of her parents work for the California School for the Deaf. She has been driving force behind the push for more deaf interns on the Hill.