Deaf Candidates: It’s Also About the Issues

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If a deaf person runs for political office, should deaf people automatically support that candidate simply because she or he is deaf?

That was the question I posed to several friends recently. In Minnesota, we have the fine Rev. Emory Dively (R) running for District 64B (St. Paul) in the Minnesota House of Representatives. He’s up against incumbent Michael Paymar (DFL) in a heavily Democratic district.

Emory and I serve on the Minnesota Association of Deaf Citizens (MADC) board together; he’s long been involved with the Deaf community, including through his church and as a past president of MADC. As a registered Democrat, I initially wasn’t sure about supporting a Republican. I have deep respect for Emory and decided to support him out of loyalty and his dedication to social justice, but I did wonder at first about the consequences of supporting someone whose political affiliation wasn’t something I cared for. So I asked friends what they thought. (In the spirit of disclosure, I should mention that I contributed financially to Dively’s campaign.)

A Democrat friend quickly responded to my question, saying that deaf people should always support a deaf candidate, regardless of party affiliation. “When you support a deaf candidate, you’re assured that the candidate’s primary focus will be equality in all aspects of life,” he said. “And if he’s deaf, he’s going to automatically support deaf people’s issues and rights.” Hmm, good point.

Another Democrat friend disagreed, saying that it’s about belief systems for him. He said he couldn’t imagine voting for a candidate who supported the death penalty or other fundamental issues. I asked, for discussion’s sake: “But if we support a hearing candidate who might not care about deaf people’s equal access and prefers to focus on other issues, instead of the deaf candidate – then won’t that increase the risk of our rights as deaf people being taken away? Shouldn’t we support a deaf candidate for that very reason alone?”

He replied, “What’s the likelihood that a rookie representative changes the system and eliminates oppression and discrimination during his/her term? There are other issues she or he will have to focus on, too.” Good point, too.

A Republican friend – I do have Republican friends, believe it or not – said, “I would go for the candidate’s agenda and platform, rather than party affiliation or being deaf. For instance, if a CODA runs for political office, but is a great supporter of American Sign Language and Deaf culture, then I would support for this person over a candidate who doesn’t support these things, even if the other candidate is deaf or hard of hearing.” Me, too, although I would also look at other moral issues.

Yet, on the flip side, it’s a major asset to have a Deaf representative involved in the political process, because this does wonders in changing hearing people’s – legislators, especially – perceptions of deaf and hard of hearing people. Even though there are many ways of doing this without being directly involved in the legislative process, it’s important to have someone actually involved in the day-to-day business of creating laws.

In the case of Emory, my doubts continued until I interviewed him for SIGNews. After a fascinating chat, I realized that he actually supported many issues that I was in favor of, and even the issues we disagreed on weren’t major issues. But the selling point for me was that if he got elected – I can’t vote for him, since I don’t live in his district -I could easily meet with him at any time if he is elected. I know he’d make time for me and for any other Deaf Minnesotan on whatever topic we wanted to talk about, because we are his people and community.

That, for me, is of paramount importance: accessibility to politicians. With accessibility, I can take full advantage of our country’s democratic process and express my views and opinions. With other legislators that I meet with for various organizations such as MADC, I sometimes have to explain how to use interpreters, ASL, and so on. Generally, legislators allot very limited time for these meetings with their constituents, and these explanations eat up valuable time; I’d much prefer to spend that time on the issues I’m there to talk about. With a deaf candidate like Emory, all these hindrances would be removed, and we’d be able to focus on the issues at hand, deaf-related or not.

For me, it boils down to learning all I can about candidates, and having access to these politicians. And if they’re deaf – even better! That enables me to talk with them directly to see what issues they support, so I can make an informed decision about who to vote for.

Don’t forget to vote on November 7.

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