Historic ASL caucus breaks language barriers

Renca Dunn debates with other deaf Iowans at the state’s first ASL caucus on Monday. (Wendy Weitzel / Gaylord News) 

DES MOINES, Iowa — Sylvia Townsend walked into a back room in a strip mall basement, ready to caucus for former Vice President Joe Biden.

She kept watchful eyes on the young child beside her, and her baby was tucked into a carrier on her back. She needed her hands to be free.

At 6 p.m., doors were closed. At 6:15 p.m., instructions were delivered. At 6:30 p.m., debate ensued — entirely in American Sign Language.

For Townsend and 17 other deaf Iowans, Monday night’s first-ever sign language caucus represented the first time they were able to actively participate in Iowa’s famous political tradition.

“Going into a room full of people who are speaking, I feel like I miss so much of what’s going on,” Townsend signed. “This gives us the equal opportunity to be able to talk with each other. It's incredibly awesome. I feel very fortunate to be here.”

The Iowa caucuses are essentially a form of primary, except participants discuss their choices before voting. People pick their first choice candidates. If candidates don’t garner 15% of the room’s support, they’re considered “unviable” and their supporters must “realign” with a viable candidate. Delegates are then awarded based on the final amount of support.

This process is hard enough to navigate for someone who can hear. It is nearly impossible for someone who can’t.

“When I tried to participate in the caucus four years ago, I was extremely overwhelmed,” said Gretchen Brown-Waech, the ASL caucus chair. “People were speaking around me and I couldn’t follow the conversations.”

This year, she saw an opportunity to help her community. The application process was a whirlwind, she said, but it was worth it.

For the first time, the state made satellite caucuses available to Iowans who wouldn’t have been able to attend their geographically based caucuses. This meant deaf Iowans from around the state could come together to caucus in their own language — even if they wouldn’t normally belong to the same precinct.

The foundation of an ASL caucus represents one of the deaf community’s most deeply held beliefs — that language access is a human right.

“It's a beginning towards a better system, a better access to the political process,” said Jennifer Keaton, who drove almost 150 miles to caucus Monday evening. “Otherwise I'd have to go to my home precinct and so would everyone else here, and we'd be spread out thin all over Iowa.”

During the caucus, the group discussed general issues facing Democrats in 2020: candidate electability, moderates versus progressives,and how to unify the party.

But deaf-specific issues were also at the forefront when choosing candidates. Several attendees mentioned that Mayor Pete Buttigiege had supported ending language deprivation — a major issue in the deaf community — and one mentioned Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s status as a former special education teacher.

Brenda Falgier, who traveled to Des Moines from Iowa City, caucused for Warren. Still, she said she wasn’t aware of any candidate who mentioned the deaf community on the campaign trail.

“That's why deaf people don't feel welcome in a political process,” she said. “(Candidates) don't seem to care about our issues.”

Language barriers are a serious issue for deaf people who want to be civically engaged.

Dirk Hillard, said he’s been politically active for some time. He joined the Scott County Democrats and is running for city council in Davenport, located 180 miles east of Des Moines on the banks of the Mississippi River. But when he explores his interests, he’s often the only person who knows American Sign Language.

“I feel like I want to talk politics with some friends and I want to be able to express myself openly, but I can't do that because of the language barrier,” he said.

Another caucuser, Gus Cordero, said it’s been frustrating to feel barred from having an active part in democracy. The excitement in his caucus room was tangible, he said.

“Deaf people are taxpayers,” he said. “It’s very important to be able to select who the next leader of our country is going to be, so it just feels like a blessing to have the opportunity.”

At the end of the night, after much discussion, Biden and Buttigiege had one delegate, and Warren had two.

People from other states may be confused about caucusing, but it’s all-consuming to many Iowans. In fact, they often get tired of it, said Reyma McCoy McDeid, executive director of Central Iowa Center for Independent Living.

McCoy McDeid organized the inclusive/accessible caucus, which was designed for the disabled community and occurred in tandem with the ASL caucus one room away. She called caucusing “Iowa-nice voter suppression.” She said it often excludes certain populations, especially before satellite caucuses were approved.

Gaylord News is a reporting project of the University of Oklahoma Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communication.

ASL1: A caucuser debates the merits of former Vice President Joe Biden in American Sign Language at Iowa’s first ASL Caucus on Monday. Wendy Weitzel/ Gaylord News.

ASL2: Renca Dunn debates with other deaf Iowans at the state’s first ASL Caucus on Monday. Wendy Weitzel/ Gaylord News.

ASL3: Deaf Iowans came together to participate in the state’s first caucus in American Sign Language on Monday. Wendy Weitzel/ Gaylord News.

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