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.
Glancing towards her parents at the reception Wednesday, Viall said, “It’s really a personal issue for me. I’ve watched my further struggle his entire life with hearing loss. . . . So I wanted to bring that to the Hill and hopefully bridge some of the divide between the deaf community and their members.”
Viall has worked with the Gallaudet Capitol Hill internship program, which began in 2010, to recruit students for congressional internships.
Frances Marquez, an associate professor of government at Gallaudet and legislative director for Rep. Alan Lowenthal, D-Calif., said she encourages her students to intern on the Hill. “I tell my students if you’re not at the table when policies are made, your community is not going to be involved.”
The caucus also has a broader mission of facilitating communication between members of Congress and their deaf constituents and raising awareness about issues important to the deaf community, specifically education.
“I know that my School for the Deaf in California serves only a fraction of the number of students that could benefit from that education,” Takano said. “We’ll need to increase the support for those school districts that also serve deaf students in the mainstream context.”
The California Democrat joined Reps. Steve Stockman, R-Texas, and Matt Cartwright, D-Pa., on legislation dubbed The Alice Cogswell and Anne Sullivan Macy Act, which is intended to strengthen the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and improve ways to identify and serve children with disabilities.
One deaf staffer said such education is key to more participation by deaf people on the Hill.
Greg Randall, Stockman’s legislative correspondent, told CQ Roll Call, “I think it would be really good if people just knew more about the language and the culture. That would lead to a higher level of understanding about deaf people. . . . And I think just through that exposure, things would improve.”
Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., takes a selfie with his cut-out head during the Hoops for Youth 16th annual charity basketball game held at George Washington University's Smith Center, September 8, 2014. The members of Congress team beat the lobbyist team 46-40. Buy photo here.