Jamaicans are known for defying the odds in pursuit of better circumstances and a better life, whether at home or in the diaspora. This is the case of Jamaica-born Claudia Gordon, who became deaf at the age of eight and left the island to escape the stigma associated with being deaf. Several years later, she was the first Black woman to become an attorney who is deaf in the United States.
Gordon was born in March 1972 and grew up in St. Mary, a parish in rural Jamaica. When she was still a child, her mother migrated to South Bronx, New York, to work as a domestic helper leaving her and her siblings in the care of her mother’s eldest sister, who was a teacher.
While attending the Cascade Primary School in St. Mary, Gordon began developing severe pain in her ears. The pain resulted from a serious defect in her ear which eventually led to her losing her hearing.
After eventually losing her hearing, she was taken out of school for almost two years because there were no institutions in St. Mary or surrounding parishes that could accommodate deaf students.
As is traditional in some aspects of Jamaican society, her aunt took her to visit spiritual “healers” to perform religious rituals to restore her hearing, but to no avail. Like many deaf people in Jamaica, Gordon became the victim of stigmatization and discrimination. But luckily, she was able to escape the harsh realities of growing up with a disability in Jamaica because of her mother’s progress in the United States.
When Gordon was 11 years old, she was reunited with her mother in New York City, and later enrolled at the Lexington School for the Deaf in New York. At Lexington, Gordon began learning sign language. She was also engaged in sports and became a top student.
In her junior year in high school, Gordon decided that she wanted to pursue law at the tertiary level. However, many people discouraged her from doing so.
“Some cited my deafness as an obstacle rendering it impractical if not impossible to pursue a law degree. Thanks to the values that were instilled in me during my formative years, I understood then that those voices of doubt neither dictated my worth nor my capacity,” she recalled in an interview with the White House Council on Women and Girls.
Defying the odds, Claudia Gordon went on to study political science at Howard University and graduated with a bachelor of arts degree in 1995.
The Jamaican subsequently made American history, by becoming the first deaf Black woman in the United States to earn a Juris Doctor (law degree) when she graduated from the American University Washington College of Law in 2000. There, she had specialized in disability rights law and policy.
She then won a Skadden Fellowship (for law graduates working with disabled people) for 2000-2002 and worked as a staff attorney at the National Association of the Deaf Law and Advocacy Center.
But while working at the Center, the Jamaican immigrant became interested in working for the Federal government.
“I confronted the truth that passing legislation is one thing but actual implementation with enforcement is another. I felt that a job with the Federal government would more effectively allow me to affect the actual enforcement of laws, thereby alleviating the blatant discrimination that people with disabilities continue to face,” she said.
From 2004 to 2009, she worked as a senior policy advisor for the Department of Homeland Security. She assisted in the implementation of the Individuals with Disabilities in Emergency Preparedness program, monitoring how federal agencies worked together to ensure that deaf and disabled persons were included in emergency preparedness plans.
During former President Barack Obama’s first term she began working in the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs (OFCCP) in the Department of Labor. In 2013, the former president had also appointed her as a public engagement advisor at the White House working with the disability community. She was a key advisor to President Obama, analyzing federal regulations and devising recommendations for inclusion policies.
Claudia Gordon has also been active in the deaf community, becoming the vice president of the National Black Deaf Advocates in 2004 and receiving the Paul G. Hearne/AAPD leadership award from the American Association of people with disabilities.
The 49-year-old currently works with corporate companies like T-Mobile and Sprint to implement inclusion initiatives geared towards people with disabilities.