Staffer for Rep. Kevin Yoder helps him connect with deaf community

Capitol Hill overflows with ambitious interns, but Zach Ennis might have his colleagues beat. He arrived in Rep. Kevin Yoder’s (R-Kan.) office in February hoping to create, produce and appear in a video with the congressman. He got his wish.

Ennis and Yoder recently published a public service announcement-style video message on YouTube in which they explain the resources and services the congressman’s office can provide to deaf constituents. It’s already Yoder’s most-watched video. 

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Ennis, 22, a senior at Gallaudet University who is deaf, says he has received emails from people from all over the country who are grateful for the congressman’s support of the deaf community. In the video, Yoder and Ennis tell viewers how to book a tour of Congress and how to request a flag that’s been flown over the Capitol, and provide other information.

“I didn’t expect such publicity, to tell you the truth,” Ennis said. “So I’m quite happy with the results.”

The video was a natural fit for both Ennis and Yoder. 

Ennis said he has been interested in politics and government since high school, when he realized that, in many situations, he would have to be his own champion.

“Growing up I had to advocate for myself wherever I went, be it a restaurant or a place of business or a store, and I would have to educate people and explain to people what I could do,” he said. “So I guess it was just something intrinsic — my ability to advocate for myself and the deaf community.”

Yoder also has an interest in the deaf community. He sits on Gallaudet’s board of trustees, and his district includes both the Kansas School for the deaf and the Olathe Deaf Cultural Center.

“Zach wanted to take [his internship] really to another level,” Yoder said. “I was really just impressed with him from the beginning.”

The video “really fit in with some of the other things I’m working on,” he said, adding that a highlight of shooting the PSA was being taught by Ennis to sign, “Hello, my name is Congressman Kevin Yoder.”

Ennis decided to pursue a Capitol Hill internship as an extension of his academic pursuits. He is majoring in government and minoring in both deaf studies and philosophy. 

“I wanted to understand the legislative process more and how government actually accomplishes its work,” he said.

More than that, though, he wanted to provide a voice for the deaf community in Congress.

“The deaf community isn’t very involved in the political process,” Ennis said, “mostly because some people don’t know where to start.”

But he found his way early. As a high school senior, Ennis, a native of Frederick, Md., landed an internship in then-Mayor W. Jeff Holtzinger’s (R) office after volunteering in the campaign. (During the race, Ennis worked for Holtzinger’s opponent, then-incumbent Ron Young, a Democrat. “I swing both ways,” he joked.) He focused on accessibility issues.

“From that experience, I knew definitely that I wanted to do something in the field of advocacy,” he said.

Ennis got his internship with Yoder the way many other applicants do — by responding to an ad he saw in his college’s career center. 

Once on Capitol Hill, he saw an opportunity to hone his advocacy skills while in Yoder’s office. He took the staff on a tour of Gallaudet and led a workshop highlighting ways to connect with the deaf community.

Fred Weiner, Gallaudet’s interim vice president of administration, said in a statement that approximately 10 students have participated in congressional internships since the school started the Capitol Hill Internship Program in fall 2010. Ten more students are hoping to be placed in internships in the 2012-2013 school year, he said.

“We feel the video featuring Zach Ennis and Congressman Yoder is an excellent way to encourage the deaf community in the congressman’s district to get involved in their local government and in the political process, as well as educate the deaf community about what services his congressional office can provide,” he said.

Ennis sees a big hole in policy when it comes to the deaf community, and he hopes Congress will fill it.

“My No. 1 suggestion in terms of Congress helping the deaf community would be to invest … into deaf education,” he said. “A lot of the state schools are struggling financially, [and] there’s an ongoing controversy on whether or not deaf children should learn to sign at an early age … There are many underlying issues with that, and so I think it would be nice if Congress could do more to ensure that deaf children receive an appropriate education.”

While in Yoder’s office, Ennis also did what all other congressional interns do: read constituent mail and write reports on hearings they attend. He communicated with his colleagues via Google’s Gchat or pen and paper. An interpreter was also on hand for certain events (like his interview with The Hill).

For the video, Ennis acted as a director of sorts. He made sure he and Yoder maintained eye contact with the camera and between each other, something he knew would be important to the deaf community.

“I would hope that other members of Congress see the video and consider doing the same thing with the deaf communities in their districts and states,” Ennis said. “I think it’s a great way to connect with a part of their constituency.”

Ennis has finished his internship and is preparing for graduation. What’s next, he’s not sure, though he does know he’d like to be involved in state or local government.

“I think it’s crucial that people continue to be educated on the needs of the deaf,” he said. 

The video is available at www.yoder.house.gov.