Government & Politics

‘There’s no road map for him’: Deaf candidate for Kansas House aiming to make history

As the Olathe candidate knocked on a voter’s door, a dog inside barked and the sound of footsteps approached. The candidate didn’t look up. He’s deaf.

The door opened. The homeowner started to say hello but trailed off as the candidate gestured to his ear and smiled. He pointed to his shirt — “Haulmark for Kansas” — and held up a pamphlet advertising his campaign. The homeowner nodded, tilting his head slightly, and looked on.

There have been deaf city counselors and a deaf mayor, but Chris Haulmark, if elected, would be the first deaf legislator — at the state or national level — in U.S. history, according to the National Association of the Deaf.

“It will be the very first time in America’s history that finally a deaf person has been invited to the table to sit with the other politicians, legislators and lawmakers and be able to make decisions together,” Haulmark, 39, said recently at an event commemorating the Americans with Disabilities Act.

He prefers the term “deafhood” to “deafness,” he said.

Deafhood was coined by author Paddy Ladd in his book “Understanding Deaf Culture.” It’s aimed at expanding one’s understanding of being a deaf person beyond just suffering a lack of hearing. It’s supposed to suggest a process through which people who are deaf understand the world in a different — often more visual — way than hearing people, but not a lesser way.

“Being deaf is not about the hearing loss to me,” Haulmark said. “It is about me using a second language.”

Haulmark became deaf at age 1 from spinal meningitis, he said in an interview using an interpreter, and he became a Democrat after seeing the importance of the government support he received.

He’d originally planned a run for Congress but dropped out when Sharice Davids entered the race. He’s now running for the 15th District seat in the Kansas House and they’ve endorsed each other. His top issues are increasing public education funding, expanding Medicaid and ensuring equal voting rights for Kansans. He had no opponent in the August primary and will face Republican John Toplikar in November.

“There’s no road map for him as a deaf candidate,” said Traci Graves. She’s supported Haulmark’s campaign since his initial planned run for Congress.

The party wasn’t prepared at first to provide deaf candidates with interpreters when they needed them, Haulmark said.

“As a Democratic candidate, I expected the Democratic Party to be inclusive with equality for all and have the willingness to support a candidate with a disability,” he said. “That did not happen.”

Now, two months before the election, he thinks his candidacy has already made a difference.

“I am positive that if there’s another deaf candidate who announces a run for office, the Democratic Party would be ready,” he said. “That’s why I ran.”

Nancy Leiker, chair of the Johnson County Democrats, agreed.

“As a deaf person, Chris is sensitive to barriers and works to break them down,” Leiker wrote in an email. “He’s taught us a lot about the barriers he faces and has worked with us to make our meetings more accessible.”

His candidacy was born on the heels of a two-year, more than 20-country odyssey visiting deaf communities around the globe. His journey started when he left for Mexico at age 35 — the first time he’d ever left the U.S — and ultimately snaked through South America, Europe and Asia.

He found that other countries were more accommodating and inclusive to his deafhood, he said, and he wanted to push for America to grow in that respect. His travels opened up the way he sees the world, allowed him to practice finding common ground between disparate people without the ability to hear or speak and prepared him for the campaign trail and for U.S. politics, he said.

Haulmark’s immediate and extended family are Republicans. They taught him to respect the value of personal responsibility, he said, but he knows from experience that some have obstacles in their lives that others don’t. Confounding the inequity in this country, he said, is a failure of empathy. Republicans, he said, only support government programs that directly benefit them.

Haulmark, born in Arkansas, worked as a manager in information technology before moving to Olathe in 2014. The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 made his career possible, he said. The ADA, which requires businesses to make accommodations for disabled employees, ensured that his employer provided an interpreter or closed captioning for him when needed.

Without ADA requirements, he said, it’s unlikely that his former employer — or other businesses in similar positions — would elect to take on an extra expense and provide those things.

In 2009, Haulmark was a married IT manager in Arkansas with two young children and a five-bedroom house. He thought that was it for him. He thought he was going to keep doing exactly what he was doing until he retired.

In April of that year, his father suffered a fatal heart attack. He was 54. Haulmark said he realized the future he’d taken for granted wasn’t promised, and he began to question what he wanted from his life.

“This feeling came out that bothered me for so much — ‘Would you make it to 65 years old and enjoy your retirement while being surrounded by some grandchildren to embrace life?’ ” Haulmark wrote in an email. “I decided to make the changes in my life so I could enjoy my life much more, spend more time with being a great role model for my kids on how to enjoy one’s life, and also to chase what I had daydreamt of.”

He quit his job, began attending town halls and grew more involved in city government. He decided he wanted to be a deaf advocate. He coordinated with deaf people in all 50 states to plan a day of rallies at each state’s capital.

He also got divorced. His two children live with his wife just down the road in Olathe.

Eventually, he decided that he wanted to travel the world.

He started with Mexico.

Haulmark communicated initially by pointing to assorted, scribbled Spanish words on a rumpled notebook. He relied on it, struggling, for a week, but then it was soaked with water and ruined.

He couldn’t communicate with anyone. He felt trapped, isolated and afraid. He had no choice but to start using gestures and rudimentary sign language. Slowly, he figured out ways to get his point across; when he needed somewhere to eat, he’d pretend to hold a fork and shovel food to his mouth. When he wanted a cup of coffee, he’d mime sipping from a mug and then opening his eyes wide.

His time in Mexico was the beginning of a breakthrough. He realized that people were more receptive to nonverbal communication than he’d once thought. Starting there, and continuing to the other countries he went, he practiced his gestures more and more. People seemed to enjoy the game of unraveling what he wanted, and he found that no matter where he went, he was able to find common ground with people.

“Can you imagine that I was able to travel without knowing any foreign languages to communicate in those countries? Gesturing with people all over the world made it such a beautiful experience,” Haulmark said.

Now he’s putting those skills to work on the campaign trail.

His goal is to knock on each of the roughly 8,000 registered voters’ doors in his district. He walks by himself about five miles per day, seven days a week. He’s also nearing the end of a yearlong project to upload a video blog each day, for 365 days, in American Sign Language with English and Spanish captioning, and his Facebook page has nearly 7,000 followers — largely because of attention from the national deaf community. The facebook page of his November opponent, Toplikar, has just over 200. (Toplikar did not respond to requests for comment for this story.)

Haulmark’s favorite time to go door-knocking is when it’s raining because he’s found that people are more likely to be at home. He doesn’t wear a raincoat, or even carry an umbrella, and voters are often impressed or sympathetic to his efforts.

He prefers going himself, without an interpreter, just him and his pamphlets. When he’s with hearing people, he said, others seem to put less effort into trying to communicate with him. This is a problem not just on the campaign trail, but even if he goes to the restaurant with friends, he said.

“Every interaction he has with a voter is fraught. It could go so many different ways when he knocks at the door and can’t speak with somebody,” said Graves, the campaign supporter. “You have to really look at every second that he interacts with somebody, and look at the potential of it, and see how he communicates effectively.”

While he’s out campaigning, sustained, back-and-forth communication is difficult for Haulmark without an interpreter, but he also seems to use it to his advantage as people are simultaneously intrigued to meet a deaf candidate and more reluctant to tell him to get the hell off their porch.

At the Olathe homeowner’s door, Haulmark pointed to a few sections on his pamphlet as the man looked on with what appeared to be genuine interest. Then Haulmark handed the pamphlet to the man to keep. They shook hands, Haulmark smiled at him, and then it was back to the sidewalk.

The interaction was entirely silent after the first, fading hello, but the homeowner was still standing at his front door examining the pamphlet as Haulmark walked up to the next house, ready to do it again.