The Deaf Politician Who Listens To Everyone

Mojo Mathers says one of the hardest things about her job as a Member of Parliament is learning to “accept the bouquets, and discard the brickbats.”

Mathers, who made history when she was elected in 2011, is New Zealand’s first deaf member of parliament, and only the fifth in the world. But she never intended to become a politician.

“I always thought I’d be a scientist!” she says. “Until I got into parliament I didn’t have a television, and only rarely bought a newspaper. I was very focussed on being a mother to three small children. I could have named the prime minister, but that was about it.”

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Mojo’s deafness was caused at birth, but it wasn’t discovered until she was two and a half. Her mother worked hard to prepare her for school, and she learned reading and lipreading early on. She now has an Honors Degree in Mathematics and a Masters in Conservation Forestry.

Mojo lives in a remote area of New Zealand’s South Island, which means a lot of travel back and forth to parliament in the capital city. Her role as the Green Party’s spokesperson for Disability Issues, Conservation, and Animal Welfare gives her the opportunity to pursue many issues close to her heart.

“Disabled people are the single most disadvantaged minority in New Zealand, according to the Human Rights Commission,” she says. “As a deaf person who lives and breathes green issues, I am a strong advocate for inclusion for everyone.”

Disabled people are the single most disadvantaged minority in New Zealand.

Over 8.5% of New Zealand’s population is deaf or hearing impaired. According to the World Health Organization, 360 million people worldwide have disabling hearing loss, a number that’s on the rise. But many jobs aren’t open to catering to people with disabilities –including Mojo’s own.

When she began her political career, Mojo says had “no concept of the challenges that lay ahead for me as a deaf candidate and activist.” For the first few months, she suffered heavily from concentration fatigue as she tried to keep up with the fast-moving debates that happen in and out of parliament.

Mojo is proficient in lipreading and is learning sign language, but this wasn’t enough. Her very first battle as an MP was to get the technology she needed to do her job.

“I needed a laptop or screen directly at my desk, and a sign language interpreter. New Zealand Sign Language is one of our three official languages, along with English and Māori, but it wasn’t represented in parliament.”

People with disabilities have a 59% unemployment rate in New Zealand, and while the majority may need no extra assistance with workplace modifications or support, about 19% do.

Mojo’s battle was closely followed by the public, who put pressure on the government to give her the tools she needed. Eventually, she was provided with an electronic note-keeping assistant, but the time it took for this to happen remains controversial.

As an activist, controversy isn’t something that stops Mojo. She engages frequently with the public on social media, and shares a lot of her personal life as well as what she’s doing at work.mojowithhearingdogsaotearoaatparliament

“One of the tough things about my job has been learning to accept the bouquets and discard the brickbats,” she said on Facebook. “Today I got told by a lovely older woman that my maiden speech had made her cry and it was a “must watch.” A few hours later I got told by a male that my voice was ‘too flat’ and I needed to get more emotion into it without being ‘creepy intense.’ I’ll just take the first, thank you.”

Mojo and her partner Don are busy transforming their new home in Peel Forest, a small community in the Canterbury region of New Zealand. It’s a hefty job, requiring the renovation of nearly two hectares of land. The area is filled with native birds, trees, and other wildlife, all of which Mojo is passionate about protecting.

“When a local farmer heard we’d cut down 17 trees he very earnestly informed me I needed to plant 10 trees for each one felled. So today we planted our first tree, a heritage apple gifted by a friend. One in, a hundred and sixty nine to go!!”

It was this commitment to the environment that led Mojo into politics. Sixteen years ago, she moved with her family from Christchurch City to the small village of Coalgate, not far from Peel Forest.

“The location was ideal for us,” she says. “It was close to a small country school, with the peaceful Waikirikiri river flowing past our doorstep.”

But Mojo soon discovered that there were plans to build a massive water storage dam for irrigation, just upstream from her new home. She became spokeswoman for the community’s opposition to the plan, and helped found the Protection Society which stopped the dam from being built.

“It was the desire to save the Waikirikiri which led directly to my involvement in politics.”

mojowithsontimanddogkeaNow, Mojo’s role as an MP doesn’t leave much time for local activism, but it does give her an avenue to work in the areas she cares for.

“Being an MP means media calls, caucus meetings, campaign planning, question time, select committees, house duty, speaking on bills I am leading, answering correspondence, writing blogs, posting on social media, researching my portfolio areas and so on. But one other important thing I do is provide advice to and support the work of individuals and groups who are lobbying for change in my portfolio areas.”

During this year’s International Week of the Deaf, Mojo was visited at Parliament by some special friends from Hearing Dogs for Deaf People Aotearoa.  She says that while she doesn’t have a service dog herself, she knows just how important they are for many people with disabilities.

“These dogs are highly trained and play an immensely important role in the lives of many people,” she says. “Guide dogs for blind, hearing dogs for deaf, and service dogs for children with autism are just some of the diverse roles they can take on. I have a friend who uses a wheelchair who has a service dog who picks up and bring her items, opens fridge doors and other stuff.  Unfortunately only guide dogs are explicitly recognized in the Human Rights Act , which has caused some problems for some people. I have a member’s bill in the ballot to expand this to cover other disability assist dogs.”

Mojo’s own dog, Kea, was adopted from the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals earlier this year, and is an important member of the family.

“She’s won the heart of all our extended family with her gentle and friendly ways. Kea is easily one of most intelligent, gentle and affectionate dogs I have ever had. She loves participating in everything we do. The only difficulty we have is that she has serious separation anxiety issues, possibly as a result of being left at the shelter for two months,  which makes it very hard to leave her at home alone!”

Another area of accessibility Mojo champions is the provision of captioning for television.

“Many countries have mandatory requirements for TV to be captioned, but New Zealand falls way behind. In the US and the UK, 99% of programs have optional captioning. We only have about 25%. It’s not fair to lock out people who are deaf from information on television.”

The issue came to a head this year when the National Foundation for the Deaf ran a fundraising drive to ensure the Olympics was captioned. Mojo says it shouldn’t have been left up to them.

“Deaf and hard-of-hearing people should not have to be fighting for something as essential as captioning in this day and age.”

When Mojo is at home ––which is as often as possible–she grabs Kea and heads out to the garden.

“My children and family are hugely important to me. My two eldest daughters are at university, and my son is still at high school. I highly value any time I can get with them. I love just pottering around at home with Don and Kea. We are about to get some goats… which I am hugely looking forward to!”

Sarah Wilson

Sarah Wilson is a 29-year-old writer, journalist and poet from Nelson, New Zealand.

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