How Will the Government Shutdown Effect the Deaf Community?


The current stalemate in Congress reminds us that the modern state is more fragile than we often think. And when – not if – the state freezes up, the effects are unevenly distributed throughout society. Not everyone will be effected equally by the shut-down.

This is perhaps a good time to remember that the U.S. federal government is the largest employer of people with disabilities. For employment purposes, this includes sign language users within the Deaf community. And not only does the government employ many individuals who are Deaf, the government employs the largest number of Deaf professionals at salaries that allow for a reasonable standard of living. In Columbus, Ohio, the largest employer is the federal military accounting center on the east side of town. I interpret there often and with great enthusiasm because I love the community of professionals who do an amazing job everyday.

But I can’t help but wonder this evening, How will the shutdown effect them? It’s one thing to watch the news with exasperated sighs and eye-rolling about government inefficiency. It’s another thing to recognize that Washington politics has a very tangible effect on people that I care about. Not to mention several of our best interpreters have highly-coveted full-time positions at the accounting center. What does this mean for their livelihood?

Interpreters and Deaf folks have always been a resilient bunch. However, this should remind us that for centuries sign language peoples have been excluded from education and full employment. When they have gain a relative advantage in the labor market – such as at the Goodyear factory in Ohio during World War I and II – they have always been selectively and tentatively employed. Selectively, because Deaf employees have often been pigeonholed into certain jobs (printers, manual laborers, ASL teachers) with little hope of advancement. Tentatively, because Deaf employees have typically been hired only where hearing workers are lacking and they have been the first to get laid off when industries started to decline. In short, Deaf employees have had to take the jobs benevolently tossed their way, and served at the leisure of employees who see them as expendable.

Back to the government shutdown. I have no doubt that the so-called shutdown is an overblown performance by a few far-right Republicans hoping to profit from the mixed response to the Affordable Care Act. Regardless of the reasoning, the fallout of these performances tends to disproportionately impact vulnerable communities, precisely those communities who, due to structural reasons beyond their control, are the least able to cope with a downturn and successfully recover.

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