Intern finds way to help deaf from Capitol Hill

McClatchy NewspapersMay 14, 2012 

— Members of Congress might wait years before accomplishing something of lasting value, if they’re even lucky enough to do that.

For 22-year-old Capitol Hill intern Zach Ennis, it took only three months. And he knew right from the start exactly what it would be.

Ennis has been deaf since birth. Working this semester for Republican Rep. Kevin Yoder of Kansas, he developed a public service video to help the first-term congressman reach out to his deaf constituents. It’s been posted to Twitter and Facebook, and already has gotten more than 1,000 views amid the cultural clutter of YouTube.

That might not seem like much when cats crooning “Jingle Bells” draw more than 6 million pairs of eyes, and perhaps 75,000 aging fans have watched a half-century-old video of the Rolling Stones singing – appropriately enough – their classic “Time Is on My Side.”

But the barometer for success is different in the genre of congressional videos, where the fare can run to subjects such as State of the Union speech reactions or the debt ceiling debate, Capitol Hill’s answer to film noir.

With some surprise, Yoder said, “It might be the most-watched video of my entire term.”

Sandra Kelly, the executive director for the Deaf Cultural Center in Yoder’s district, said that “awesome” was the immediate reaction to the video that she heard.

Congress has long supported services aimed at the deaf. But so far as Ennis and Yoder are aware, their online video could be the first to go viral.

“There are people out there who don’t know what Congress can do for them, and the video is a good start,” Ennis said. “Maybe young deaf children, when they see this video, will be interested in government and the political process.”

Young people such as Ennis himself, who during high school in nearby Frederick, Md., interned in the mayor’s office. He’s now a senior studying government, philosophy and deaf studies at Gallaudet University in Washington, the world’s only college where every program is designed for students who are deaf or hard of hearing.

Fred Weiner, the school’s interim vice president of administration, said in a statement that the video was “an excellent way to encourage the deaf community . . . to get involved in their local government and in the political process.”

Estimates about the number of deaf people in the United States can vary, depending on how the condition is defined. According to Gallaudet research, nine to 22 people out of every 1,000 either have severe hearing loss or are deaf. In at least half, it occurred after age 64.

Hoping to become an advocate for deaf causes, Ennis answered an advertisement at school that Yoder’s office was looking for an intern. He recently completed the three-month stint, for which his duties consisted of answering constituent mail, researching issues and attending hearings, with an interpreter.

The congressional office liked his idea for a public service video aimed at the deaf community and let him run with it. It starts out silently, with Yoder using American Sign Language to introduce himself, and continues with Ennis and Yoder alternately speaking and signing about ways the office can aid deaf people.

Ennis came by his advocacy from personal experience. He grew up unable to hear in a home with parents – his dad is a digital artist and his mom works in publishing – who are deaf and two brothers who can hear.

Yoder, meanwhile, represents a district that is home not only to the Deaf Cultural Center, but to the Kansas State School for the Deaf as well. Both are in Olathe. He’s also one of three members of Congress who are on Gallaudet’s board of trustees.

“I’ve really gone from someone with very little knowledge about the deaf community and its challenges, and become fairly well versed in a lot of its issues,” Yoder said. “My eyes have been opened to a lot of things.”

Kelly said that even something as basic as Yoder using sign language in the video to identify himself was an important symbol.

“It just gives a message that Congress is more accessible,” she said. “All of us sometimes feel like, ‘Oh, it’s back there off in Washington, D.C. Whoever knows what they do there?’ ”

Indeed, with Congress so bitterly divided these days, a lot of lawmakers appear to have developed tin ears for the public’s weariness with their squabbles and inaction. Ennis finds it frustrating as well, but he wouldn’t hesitate to return after college. The thrill – and satisfaction – of his accomplishment is hard to shake.

“I want be part of the process to get things done,” he said.

email: dgoldstein(at)mcclatchydc.com

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