Graduate of School for the Deaf aims to break barriers

Marion native has worked at White House

Diane Heldt
Published: December 30 2012 | 8:25 am - Updated: 1 April 2014 | 3:52 am in

Joseph Lewis has never been one to let his deafness limit his opportunities, interning at the White House, spending two years with AmeriCorps and now working for the federal government in Washington, D.C.

And Lewis, who was adopted from South Korea at age 5 and grew up in Marion, has his sights set on breaking ground in politics, hoping to be a future deaf trailblazer in that arena.

After a 2009 internship in Sen. Tom Harkin’s office in Washington, Lewis told Harkin “when he retires, I’ll take his position, and he said OK,” Lewis said through an interpreter during an interview this week, smiling at the memory.

Politics is one of his passions, and Lewis hopes to move back to his home state someday to pursue elected office.

“I want to break that barrier,” he said. “I want to break through and do it and show people that deaf people can.”

He encourages other deaf and hearing-impaired students to follow their passions, including politics, where he says there are few deaf leaders as role models.

“No matter what their limitations are ... they need to go for it and face their limitations and don’t let those barriers prevent them from doing things,” he said.

Lewis, 26, attended school in Marion for a few years before enrolling at the Iowa School for the Deaf in Council Bluffs during middle school. He was an advocate for the deaf school during recent discussions about its future, and he says he’ll remain a supporter on its behalf because of the difference it made in his life.

“The education, yes, is important, but the culture is something that I really needed,” he said of being around a community of deaf people. “I visited the deaf school and it was like culture shock. I saw all the students signing, I saw the teachers, the nurse, everybody was signing.”

Lewis graduated as the Iowa School for the Deaf valedictorian in 2005 and went on to attend Gallaudet University in Washington D.C., a school that’s well known in the deaf community.

Gallaudet is a campus of deaf and hard-of-hearing students, and some hearing students, from around the world. That diversity served him well and boosted his confidence, Lewis said. He also felt fortunate to be in a city that’s so political, a locale that fit in with his interest in government.

During his summer 2009 internship with Harkin’s office, Lewis handled the mail and helped with new office policies and research. The experience meant a lot to Lewis because Harkin knows American Sign Language, and he got to meet the senator several times.

“It really inspired me,” Lewis said.

Armed with a letter of recommendation from Harkin, Lewis landed the White House internship for spring 2010. Along with 23 other interns, Lewis read thousands of letters and correspondence to President Barack Obama. The interns forwarded on what they thought were the most important letters to the director of correspondence, who chose the ones the president would read.

“I got to read how other people feel, and understand what Americans really need from President Obama,” Lewis said. “It was our job to pick the letters that we felt were more impactful or inspiring.”

One of the most impressive memories, he said, was getting to bowl in the Truman bowling alley in the White House on the interns’ last day.

After graduating with a degree in government, Lewis served two years with AmeriCorps before taking his job as a correspondence specialist in the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs. The department has three staff sign language interpreters, and he also uses technology to communicate with co-workers who don’t sign. Lewis gets together for monthly lunches with other deaf employees in the department, a good way to talk about work issues with mentors, he said.

“If you want to thrive, you have to work hard and have a positive attitude, don’t get frustrated and move on,” Lewis said.

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