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Meet the head of D.C.'s new Office of Deaf, Deafblind and Hard of Hearing

Kari Cooke was named director of the new D.C. Office of Deaf, Deafblind and Hard of Hearing. (Maansi Srivastava/The Washington Post)
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Kari Cooke, recently tapped by D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser to lead the city’s new Office of Deaf, Deafblind and Hard of Hearing, still remembers longing for a sense of community.

Cooke, of New York, grew up with difficulty hearing that began to accelerate in her early twenties. Even as she embraced her deafness, she felt isolated from others who had found a connection through their fluency in American Sign Language. It wasn’t until later, when she joined the National Black Deaf Advocates, that Cooke finally felt that she belonged.

“It was the first time I felt like a whole person,” Cooke, 37, said Monday through an interpreter. “When I found the deaf community, I found myself.”

Now, after spending much of the past decade as an advocate for deaf people across the country, Cooke will serve as the inaugural director of the District’s latest community office, which was established by the D.C. Council in 2020 and funded in last year’s budget process. It will join a host of other offices led by Bowser, including divisions focused on Latino, African and LGBTQ affairs.

Cooke says her primary directive is to help ensure children with hearing and visual impairments — as well as adults and individuals who lose their hearing later in life, like her — are properly connected to city services. It’s an area where local advocates say D.C. has lagged behind other jurisdictions, despite being considered one of the country’s most deaf-friendly cities.

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The D.C. Council has estimated that 20,000 or so people who identify as deaf or hard of hearing live in the District, and a 2018 report from the National Deaf Center on Postsecondary Outcomes found that between 2012 and 2016, D.C. had the largest achievement gap between deaf and hearing individuals in completing bachelor’s degrees among 52 states and territories. The city ranked 50th in the employment gap between those populations, according to the center.

“In terms of connecting people with disabilities to employment, we have a lot of work to do,” Bowser said in an interview. “We have, of course, been trying to service the community through all of our agencies — but having a constituency, policy and budget focus on the deaf and hard of hearing communities will be helpful.”

There are 38 states that have agencies focused on the deaf and hard of hearing.

Bowser (D), who is running for a third term, noted that the city’s Department of Disability Services has a broad responsibility to aid all residents with disabilities. But the six-member office of Deaf, Deafblind and Hard of Hearing, she said, will provide more targeted support in connecting these populations with District agencies, particularly in the realms of education, employment and human services.

Cooke said connecting more residents to jobs will be a core focus. But she said issues in employment often stem from education, which for many deaf and hard of hearing individuals is more challenging if they’ve experienced language deprivation.

“Most deaf babies are not born to deaf parents, and most hearing parents don’t have access to ASL,” she said. “We want to make sure children know ASL before they even get into school. There’s a trickle-down effect.”

Deaf activist and advisory neighborhood commissioner Robb Dooling, who has advocated for the office’s creation since 2014, said in a Twitter message that the new office will make a “world of difference” — particularly for people who engage with D.C. government.

Dooling earned notoriety on Twitter in 2019 when he called out the council for not providing him with a qualified interpreter for his testimony in support of establishing the office.

He said that while the council and advisory neighborhood commissions usually provide interpreters and other accessibility accommodations upon request, they are often contractors with varying levels of skill. Among other improvements, the new office is tasked with maintaining a registry and licensure for qualified interpreters.

Dooling echoed Cooke’s concern about preventing language deprivation in children.

“People are surprised to learn that even with the presence of Gallaudet University and the Model Secondary School for the Deaf, many lower-income D.C. families go through life without ever knowing that they exist,” he said. “Deaf people need D.C. to become a world capital of our culture and our language — because we already have the resources to do just that.”

On top of her work as director of policy and government affairs with the National Black Deaf Advocates, Cooke was appointed by then-New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) to the State Independent Living Council, where she advised legislation focused on New Yorkers with disabilities. She’s also held other roles as a policy analyst for the Center for Disability Rights and was most recently a vice president at the Communication Service for the Deaf.

Other advocates say they are happy to see the office finally come into form after years of advocating for additional resources.

Graham Forsey, president of the District Columbia Association of the Deaf, said through an interpreter that he and others fought to ensure the person running the office would be from the deaf or hard of hearing community. His hope is that the office will lead to more equitable outcomes.

“We’re a big part of this city, and many deaf people come here for government work, but the community has never had a strong voice,” Forsey said. “It’ll be important for the office to have some community member input to ensure all populations are considered; they all have unique needs.”

Cooke starts next week, and once she rounds out her staff, she’ll begin a ward-by-ward tour to assess outcomes and needs for deaf, deafblind and hard-of-hearing residents across the District. The D.C. Council will vote on confirming her appointment.

“Oftentimes, with community [tours], it’s a one-time event — they express everything they feel then we’re done,” Cooke said. “But I don’t want to take that approach. I want to make sure we follow up.”