Growing up in the suburban North County area of San Diego, California, Georgetown University student Matthew Sampson was always aware he was different from those around him, especially his immediate family. His mother, father, and sister are all deaf, but while he is hard of hearing, he can still hear some sounds. As he moved between the hearing and deaf communities, Sampson was inspired to use his privilege to bring together both worlds.
D.C. has a significant deaf and hard of hearing population in part because of Gallaudet University, the only university in the nation specifically designed to educate the Deaf community. Despite that, deaf and hard of hearing residents feel excluded from the District’s political process because they are not made aware of resources that are available to them.
Sampson was so frustrated by this lack of clear communication that he and five friends started their own action group last summer. Deaf Urbanism hosts various meetings, trainings, and workshops in ASL, with the goal of getting more deaf people involved in local politics.
“We created Deaf Urbanism because we wanted to change and make a mark on our city,” says Sampson. “The Deaf community knows next to nothing about the political process and has been waiting for someone to come in and teach them.”
Forming the group had an almost immediate impact on Sampson; he was never politically involved, but he knew that there was more he could do to improve the quality of life of deaf people in the District. He is now planning to run in the Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) 2B01 election in November.
“I’m only running for ANC as an example,” Sampson says. “My dream is to have a deaf mayor or council person, but it doesn’t have to be me.”
Derrick Behm, a current graduate student at Georgetown University and member of Deaf Urbanism, believes that the political system in the District is to blame for the lack of participation in the Deaf community.
“D.C. politics is not Deaf friendly, and while they may not purposefully ignore us, the political system here is structured to exclude deaf people,” says Behm. “Their meetings are not accessible.”
Accessibility and communication are some of the main concerns for deaf people trying to participate in local politics. The District is required to follow Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act. This federal law requires state and local governments to make their programs accessible to individuals with disabilities, including individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing. In the case of ANC meetings, an individual would file a request for an ASL translator through the District’s Office of Disability Rights, which would then be sent to the relevant ANC commissioners. It would then be up to the commissioners to obtain a translator.
The ANC would then have to pay for the translator out of its budget. In 2016, the D.C. Council attempted to address these concerns by including $25,000 in the fiscal year 2017 budget to create an ANC Sign-Language Interpreters Fund. Commissioners could withdraw money from the fund to pay for ASL interpretation services at ANC meetings and proceedings. But according to Gottlieb Simon, executive director of the Office of the Advisory Neighborhood Commissions, less than $1,000 of that fund was used.
Keith Doane, another member of Deaf Urbanism, believes the fund was barely used in part because no one told the Deaf community about it. Simon says ANC commissioners were responsible for telling their constituents about this service and the fund.
“I could have been politically activated if I knew that the interpreters funds were available,” he says.
The ANC Sign-Language Interpreters Fund was a pilot program that was not renewed in 2018. At-Large Councilmember Anita Bonds has proposed dedicating permanent funds for ANCs to provide sign language interpretation services in the fiscal year 2019 budget.
Jamie Sycamore, an ASL interpreter and disability advocate, is running for D.C. Council in Ward 1 in part because he got tired of lobbying for disability access and it falling on, for lack of a better term, deaf ears. He too believes that more deaf people would be involved in politics if the system were more accessible and better explained to the deaf community.
“They don’t know about the types of resources that are available to them because there is no transparency,” he says. “It’s all about disseminating the information from the top down.”
Sycamore, who learned ASL at the age of 13, first became an advocate for those in the Deaf community when he realized how hard it was for them to get housing in the District. If he is successful in his run for D.C. Council, he hopes he can help to be the representation in government that the deaf community is looking for right now.
“This election cycle is the first time I’ve actually seen the Deaf community come together and start to advocate for more representation in their government,” says Sycamore. “While I myself am not deaf, I hope to be the vessel to provide direct access and communication to this community.”
Creating a government office in the District like the Maryland Governor’s Office of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing would help many people in the Deaf community feel as if their issues are being addressed. The Maryland Governor’s Office of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing’s goal is to promote full access for those in the deaf and hard of hearing community that enhances their quality of life. Even though there are services in D.C. currently that provide assistance to the Deaf community such as the Office of Disability Rights and the Metropolitan Police Department’s Deaf and Hard of Hearing Liaison Unit, it is unclear to people like Doane if those agencies are working together. He would like to see a watchdog agency created to ensure that these agencies know what each other is doing.
One of Sampson’s longterm goals is to get the U.S. Census Bureau to include ASL on their list of languages. He says that because there is no official count of deaf or hard of hearing people in the United States and no official count of how many people communicate using ASL, it makes it easy for the needs of this community to be ignored.
“We’ve been begging to be put on the census,” he says. “We’ve been wanting to mark down that we are deaf and proud and that the government should count us, but our pleas have gone nowhere.”
From his early interactions with the political world Sampson has learned that if he wants to get something done, he likely has to start it on his own.
“We have to prove that the Deaf community can get power,” says Sampson. “But not only that, we have to prove that D.C. is willing to step up and meet us halfway.”