The Wash

One of D.C.’s first deaf politicians strives to represent deaf residents — and all residents

Robb Dooling plans to promote accessibility, affordable housing and green space in NoMa and Old City.

The movie was “Call Me by Your Name,” the companion was his then-boyfriend and the verdict on the film was inconclusive because the theater took 20 minutes to deliver Robb Dooling a captioning device that didn’t work.

Dooling, who is set to become one of the District’s first deaf advisory neighborhood commissioners, said his date to see the romance film in a D.C. theater last January ended with the pair receiving refunds and leaving.

“Some theaters do better jobs with this, but deaf people should not be limited to the more deaf-friendly theaters or showtimes,” Dooling, who communicates through American Sign Language, said in a email. “All theaters should be accessible at all times.”

It’s uncommon for deaf people to win political office in the United States. The election of Dooling and Matthew Sampson, who is also deaf, as Advisory Neighborhood Commission representatives is a rare chance to bring issues facing D.C.’s deaf community to the forefront, Tawny Holmes Hlibok, a professor of deaf studies at Gallaudet University, said in an email.

Holmes Hlibok said the only known deaf elected official in the U.S. is Richard Brown, a retired chief judge of the Wisconsin Court of Appeals.

A candidate in the 1992 election to serve on ANC 3F in Northwest D.C. was deaf, according to a letter posted on the District’s website. The letter does not indicate whether the candidate was elected.

Robb Dooling dresses as the NoMa–Gallaudet University Metro station for Halloween. (Courtesy of Robb Dooling)

In Dooling’s eyes, it’s not a big deal that he’s probably NoMa and Old City’s first deaf advisory neighborhood commissioner.

“I don’t call myself the first anything,” Dooling, 28, said in an email, attaching a smiley face emoji.

ANCs are the District’s lowest level of government, so serving as one of 296 representatives is a low-profile role. Dooling’s victory in the Nov. 6 election, when he ran unopposed, tasks him with representing roughly 6,000 NoMa residents on quality-of-life issues ranging from trash pickup to open space.

He’s excited about all of it, especially supporting the completion of Tanner Park, increasing affordable housing and widening sidewalks that he said can be harrowing for people with disabilities. Wheelchair users and blind people have a hard time navigating obstacles on sidewalks that are only two feet wide in some places, Dooling said.

“Deaf people struggle to hold conversations walking side-by-side on the sidewalk in front of the world’s only deaf university,” he said, referencing Gallaudet University, a private school in NoMa that serves students who are deaf and partially deaf.

Robb Dooling poses along the Metropolitan Branch Trail overlooking M Street Northeast in July. (Courtesy of Robb Dooling)

An Omaha, Nebraska, native, Dooling moved to D.C. in 2014 for a software development job after he graduated from Rochester Institute of Technology. He has also worked part-time for ASL Trivia D.C., a bar trivia night hosted in American Sign Language.

Dooling said his own experiences have prompted him to advocate for better accommodations for deaf D.C. residents, like reclining bicycles and tricycles in city bikeshare systems, audible walk signals for blind pedestrians and open captioning at movie theaters.

A proposed District Office for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, backed by Councilman Charles Allen (D-6) on Nov. 13, also has Dooling’s footprint on it. He said he met with Allen several times to advocate for the office’s creation.

For the past two years, Heather Edelman has held the ANC post that Dooling will inherit Jan. 2. She said she courted voters alongside Dooling and found him energetic and eager to take on the heavy workload.

“He campaigned not because he was against something, hated something that he saw, but because he expressed that he wants to make it a good neighborhood to live and work in,” Edelman said in a phone interview.

Accessing interpreters and captioning services to communicate with the general public can be financially burdensome for deaf people who campaign for political offices, Holmes Hlibok said. But she said deaf politicians who are respected by the deaf community will quickly receive their support and may benefit from using American Sign Language, one of the country’s most widely taught languages.

Holmes Hlibok said it was “beyond thrilling” to see two deaf ANC representatives elected in D.C. this year.

“D.C. is one of the top five largest populations of deaf people in the United States, and it’s about time our interests … are represented,” she said.

Marisa Iati

Marisa Iati

I’m a Washington, D.C.-based reporter studying investigative journalism as a graduate student at American University.

I previously worked at The Star-Ledger and NJ.com in New Jersey, where I covered municipal mayhem, community issues, education and crime in two counties with a combined 1.4 million residents. I told these stories with words, videos, photos and graphics. I also covered white-collar crime at Global Investigations Review while living in Washington and cataloging the district’s best coffee shops in my spare time.

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