The Two Deaf Women In The White House
Two women who are deaf have risen to prominent positions alongside Barack Obama in the White House.
Leah Katz-Hernandez, 28, is one of the first people visitors encounter when they enter the White House. Informally known as the Receptionist of the United States – or Rotus – she is the first ever deaf person to hold that position. Her desk is just steps away from the Oval Office.
“My job involves welcoming people into the West Wing on a daily basis,” she says. “Those people include the president, along with his guests and senior staff. I also welcome world leaders from other countries.”
She also oversees the White House guest book and the West Wing’s main meeting space, the Roosevelt Room, among other roles and communicates with people who don’t understand sign language through an American sign-language interpreter. Phone calls are also translated in this way.
She has a background in politics, having studied government at Gallaudet University in Washington and got her first introduction to the White House as an intern.
Determined to be part of the Obama administration, she travelled to his headquarters in Chicago during the mid-term elections in 2012, and got a job working on his re-election campaign. After Obama won, she was appointed as the First Lady’s press assistant and research associate.
Her boss, Barack Obama, recently told a packed news conference that “her smiling face is one of the first things people see when they come into the White House”.
Katz-Hernandez reveals: “He knows a little bit of sign language, not only because of me, but because of his relationship with other deaf Americans. It’s not a lot of sign language – he is a busy man.”
A colleague of Katz-Hernandez is Claudia Gordon, the first deaf African-American female attorney in the United States. She works at the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs and has held a previous post as a policy adviser for the Department of Homeland Security.
Her journey to Washington started in Jamaica where she spent her early childhood. At the age of eight she lost her hearing and, unable to afford an education in Jamaica, her mother took her to New York where she went to a school for the deaf and learned sign language for the first time.
Lack of deaf education was not unusual then and can still be a problem today. According to the World Federation of the Deaf, approximately 80% of the world’s 70 million deaf people do not have any access to education and less than 2% of deaf children have access to learning sign language.
She says the discrimination she experienced in Jamaica inspired her to become a lawyer.
“It did cause me to recognise injustice that exists in society towards people who happen to be different – deaf, blind, physically disabled or have a mental disability. I realised then that society does not treat people right, including myself. So from that experience I realised I wanted to be able to make change, make things better for people like myself.”
Katz-Hernandez and Gordon praise the Obama administration for its progressive philosophy and values – they aren’t the only deaf people working in the White House.
“I want to see the deaf community become more involved with the government because it has a vital impact on the lives of deaf people,” Katz-Hernandez says. “It’s important that they are included. I hope to see many more people like me in the future.”
For many deaf people barriers and stereotypes remain. But some are facing up to the discrimination they see and are working hard to break down those barriers.
But what do Gordon and Katz-Hernandez think their futures will hold when the Obama administration hands over the reins of government next January?
“I do know for a fact that I will continue to strive to make a difference to better society for people with disabilities and other under-served groups,” Gordon says. “What that job title will be, what organisation or governmental body that will be I don’t know but I will continue to follow my passion.”
Katz-Hernandez adds: “My boss [President Obama] said to me: ‘The White House is not the top of your career, it’s the beginning of your future.’ It is true, it is only the beginning, really I want to work to better the future and rights of deaf people and other minority communities.”