John A. Wilson Building, home to the local government
John A. Wilson Building. Credit: Photo by Darrow Montgomery.

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Brianne Burger says the first time she ran into issues with D.C. was when she had issues with one of her tenants. A government employee and Deaf advocate, Burger says when she asked for the government’s assistance she got a bum-puzzling response back.

“They told me ‘Oh, you should go to Gallaudet,’” she says. “Ummmm … Gallaudet University is a school. They are not a part of your government. I need government … I think you misunderstand what Gallaudet is.”

Burger says she has gotten this response multiple times at D.C.’s government agencies, and yet no answer as to what the Deaf university would do to help her. This is why she and other advocates have been working for years to break down the communication barrier the D.C. government hasn’t addressed with its Deaf population. This month, they were delivered a win.

The D.C. Office for Deaf, Deafblind and Hard of Hearing (ODBH) was finally funded in the Council’s FY2022 budget, receiving $836,000. While ODBH was officially created by law last September, this is the first time it has received funding. It will begin receiving funds Oct. 1 and is intended to evaluate the D.C.’s government services to ensure Deaf residents are getting provided proper accommodations.

Robb Dooling, an advocate and ANC for the H Street corridor, said he was “relieved and very grateful” when the funding was finally pushed through.

“Seven years of advocacy for the Deaf community and the Deaf-Blind community and the Hard of Hearing community has finally gotten to this point,” he says through an interpreter.

It’s wild to think D.C. hasn’t had this office already. D.C. has a huge, concentrated Deaf population, several Deaf advocacy groups are headquartered within the DMV, and the city is home to the oldest Deaf university in the world, Gallaudet University. It’s so old it was founded while the Civil War was happening in 1864. But the District has lagged behind 38 other states that previously established similar offices. Burger says over 17,000 Deaf employees work for the federal government and are completely unaffiliated with Gallaudet. (Gallaudet didn’t respond to requests for comment regarding District services mentioning them.) Burger says the ODBH has finally moved forward because D.C. realizes how big the community is. 

“Gallaudet University is less than 2,000 people and most of these students don’t even live here—they’re from out of state,” she says. “They all come from Maryland, D.C., or Virginia and they have all come to D.C. during the day for work while they live and play here.”

Burger says the office originally received pushback as redundant because there’s already an Office of Disability Rights. She says, when compared to other disabilities, the Deaf community has different needs that require its own office. 

“For most people with a disability, their barrier challenge is physical … our barrier is communication,” she says. Not all Deaf people can speak and/or read lips. Burger says many Deaf residents have to rely on paper, notes apps, or even making an educated guess about what a person is saying to them. Everyday things like getting coffee are so challenging for Deaf and Hard of Hearing people Burger says, by the end, your coffee is cold.

Advocates are also getting a cold shoulder. Both Dooling and Burger say Mayor Muriel Bowser and her office have engaged little with D.C.’s Deaf community. In 2016, Bowser did not include a sign language interpreter during press conferences about a 2016 blizzard. Advocates had to push the mayor’s office to release already established money for sign language interpreters at ANC meetings, and when talks for ODBH went nowhere, they circumvented her and worked with the much more welcoming D.C. Council to get the office established. Even with the funded office, Dooling says Bowser still seems uninterested in working with her Deaf constituents.

“They’ve been ignoring us as a community,” Dooling says. “They’ve had a little communication, but they’ve never actually confirmed anything that we would like to do.” 

The OBDH may be funded, but concerns are still prevalent. He says he’s concerned the mayor “will just ignore this and not take anyone, they’ll just brush that away and focus on other issues.” Bowser’s office, along with D.C.’s Office of Disability Rights and the Department of Disability Services, did not respond to a request for comment.

Dooling also fears Bowser will appoint someone who isn’t Deaf, Hard of Hearing, or fluent in American Sign Language, which is reasonable. Many Deaf offices have been headed by hearing people. Some have credited Gallaudet students protesting against a non-Deaf, non-signing president in 1988 for helping to finalize the Americans With Disabilities Act. Gallaudet’s first Deaf president wasn’t inaugurated until 1988, following the Deaf President Now movement.

Burger says she wants the mayor to include Deaf community members on the selection committee because of Bowser’s hands-off approach.

“If you haven’t been amazing with the deaf or hard of hearing or deaf blind community for such a long time… who do you have in mind for the job?” she said. “ We are hoping she’ll want our input. That’s where we are right now.”

Burger adds Jenny Reed, the Director for the Office of Budget and Performance Management, told her Steven Walker, head of the Mayor’s Office of Talent and Appointments, would be the best choice. Burger doesn’t agree because she says he wasn’t interested in the office in the first place.

“Steve Walker is the person who said to me back four years ago: ‘No, we don’t want to do the office,’” she said. Walker did not respond to comment.

“I guess we have to go back to him and be like ‘I know you said no back then but too bad.’” Burger says. “There’s a law and there’s funding. Now you’re going to have to play with us.’”

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