RIT/NTID student leader bridges barriers for people with disabilities on Capitol Hill
Alexander Van Hook’s summer co-op focused on misconceptions of accessibility
Sept. 27, 2013
by Greg Livadas
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Alexander Van Hook, a third-year political science major at Rochester Institute of Technology’s National Technical Institute for the Deaf, spent his summer in Washington, D.C., where he completed a co-op in the Capitol working for U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris-Rodgers, from Washington state.
“It was an amazing internship experience,” says Van Hook, of Upper Black Eddy, Pa. “The internship really changed my life by teaching me so many things and by letting me meet wonderful people who will end up lifelong friends.”
Van Hook’s internship was through the American Association of People with Disabilities Internship Program. He was one of 30 students or recent graduates to work in Washington in various agencies, companies or Congressional offices.
“I was seeking options for potential future careers in the political field, and I was hoping that the internship would help me better understand my career options and goals,” he says. “I also wanted to have hands-on experiences in the field and meet similarly-ambitious young people with disabilities. The internship successfully met my expectations.”
Van Hook is deaf and has congenital muscular dystrophy. He uses American Sign Language to communicate.
“My primary duty at the Congresswoman’s office was to conduct a research project of my own on the current benefits of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990,” Van Hook says. “I found out how accessibility still needs to be improved, how certain people still have misconceptions of accessibility and to discuss universal design and approach to reduce the misconception of accessibility.”
Van Hook met and interviewed various disability organizations and disability rights advocates in the D.C. area, conducted research at the Library of Congress and gave a presentation to McMorris-Rodgers. He had interpreters for meetings and interviews, and if there was a need to communicate, he texted to get the job done.
“The major conclusion I came to is that accessibility improvements are needed in numerous areas respective to each disability category,” he says. “One of the biggest misconceptions that certain people and businesses have is that they believe that accommodations for people with disabilities are all expensive. However, the truth is that not all accommodations are expensive and the important thing here is to provide ‘reasonable’ accommodations to people with disabilities.”
Van Hook suggested to the Congresswoman that a national clearinghouse could be established to consult businesses and people with disabilities “to ensure both sides are able to meet in the middle, in a reasonable way.”
Van Hook says he learned a lot about other disabilities during his co-op and what kinds of careers he’d like to pursue. “I also learned how to be a better leader and how to be a better advocate, both for myself and for the disability community,” he says.
And he’s using what he has learned already. Van Hook is director of Student Affairs for the NTID’s Student Congress, overseeing student participation on various committees, assisting students with concerns and working with the NTID administration and faculty as well as RIT’s Student Government.
And he’s planning to return to Washington next summer. “I am hoping to work either for my Congressional representative, or the White House,” he says.