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What It's Like Campaigning During COVID-19 as a School Board Candidate With a Disability

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Early in March, I had every intention of writing about my experiences campaigning with a speech disability as my state’s primary was quickly approaching. Door knocking was about to ramp up tenfold, forcing me to challenge one of my last internal barriers of speaking out of the blue to strangers. I had already experienced the “Sorry, I can’t help,” and “not interested,” in the early days of canvassing, as the door was closed in my face before my iPad could finish my opening introduction as a Board of Education candidate.

I didn’t get a lot of closed doors, but like with any campaign, they do happen on any given day of canvassing, and there is no way to know if it’s due to the person not wanting anyone knocking on their door or not interested in me specifically. And after initially thinking “why?” when one door was closed in my face by a family I knew had a nonverbal child, I looked at it as a sign of being treated normally. After all, people in the middle of projects and/or with loud dogs tended to be the most likely to interrupt my intro with a “Not now.” But that was one of my last days of any normalcy in my campaign — and my life — as COVID-19 quickly commandeered my city, my state, our country, and the world.

But let me back up a bit. Two of the most prominent things I was born with were a tremendous amount of self-confidence and an undiagnosed speech disability. Over time, sometimes my disability easily integrated with my self-confidence and sometimes my disability clashed with such self-confidence. My self-confidence definitely enabled me to handle the bullying growing up (knowing such behavior primarily occurs from people deflecting their emotions due to a lack of their own self-confidence) and allowed me to pursue my dreams regardless of how society/strangers viewed me. Be in the school chorus: done! Play soccer: done! Skydive, twice: done! Teach in a classroom: done! Decide at age 5 to be an attorney: done! Decide at age 10 to name my firstborn Jack: done! Yet life is never perfect for anyone, and even the strongest of us deal with internal worry or doubt at times.

Over the years it has been easy to push any doubts aside as my self-confidence would loom larger, whispering in my ear that I’ve “got this” and not to worry. After all, nothing has been more fun in my life than climbing over a wall to get through an obstacle course — literally and figuratively. Yet, speed up over four decades later and I am forced to confront both my self-confidence and self-doubt when entering the local election for a seat on the Anne Arundel County Board of Education.

If I win, it would be living up to another lifelong vow I set back in elementary school: supporting our public schools and teachers no matter what. It also appears I would be the first person with a speech disability (who is not deaf) to ever serve on any Board of Education in the nation, although I do somewhat cringe inside when mentioning that to people since that “history-making event” has nothing to do with why I am running.

My self-confidence — and passion for life — is at its peak every time I testify on behalf of our kids or teachers at a Board of Ed meeting, have a chance to hear directly from our kids about what they need/want, or talk with other activists or parents about ways to close the inequity gaps, eliminate unwarranted arrests of students of color, or ensure students with disabilities are never exposed to restraints or seclusion. And just like I still smile looking at the thank you notes I received from second graders when I gave my first lecture at age 12, there is nothing more uplifting than getting an email from a special ed teacher or firefighter vet of 53 years saying how valuable the emergency communication aid was that I mailed to all residents in my district during this pandemic.

But like I said, life is not perfect. I am also a quote person, and of course, if you Google self-confidence and self-doubt, you will get a lot of motivational quotes — many of which I actually believe in.

“Having a rough day? Place your hand over your heart. Feel that? That’s called purpose. You’re alive for a reason. Don’t give up.” —Joyce Meyer

You can’t ‘bounce back’ to a previous point in time; all you can do is move through where you are and progress forward.”

“Rather than sitting on the sidelines…we must dare to show up and let ourselves be seen. This is vulnerability.” —Brene Brown

That last one about showing up and letting ourselves be seen is especially poignant during these final weeks of my campaign. COVID-19 has put all my hidden self-doubts front and center during these extended weeks of the campaign. With the state moving our primary back from April 28 to June 2 and restrictions canceling all in-person candidate forums and meetups, I am literally having to put my face — and computerized voice — front and center as I host Zoom meetings or go live on Facebook.

I always hated the fact that I couldn’t verbally speak when talking to groups, that I couldn’t do hand or other body movements in sync with verbal dialogue. Such perception is even worse now that the camera is literally in my face as I sit in front of my iPhone, mouth not moving as my iPad is talking (except for facial expressions as I hear humorous moments in my dialogue). And I have to accept the fact that people just have to be patient as I look away from the camera and type responses as fast as I can during those live events on social media.

It’s never easy as I worry about what is in the best interest of my audience and people’s attention spans. But you know what? The very fact that I am writing about my self-doubts on a national platform and risking potential voters thinking I am too vulnerable goes to another quote I think everyone should live by: “Confidence doesn’t mean you won’t fail. It doesn’t mean you’re always smiling or that you never experience anxiety or self-doubt. Instead, it means you know you can handle those feelings and push through them to conquer the next challenge.” It also goes to the mantra from one of my son’s favorite songs, “This Is Me” from “The Greatest Showman” — “I am who I’m meant to be, this is me; Look out ’cause here I come; And I’m marching on to the beat I drum; I’m not scared to be seen; I make no apologies, this is me.”

In some ways, I have never been scared to be seen. Much like Abraham Lincoln who lost more elections than he won, growing up I lost 13 elections in a row — starting with sixth-grade hall monitor — before I finally won an uncontested one in college and then my first contested election as law school class president (an election I admit was also on my to-do list back in elementary school: done!) Yet all of those losses only propelled me forward, analyzing what I did right and what could be done better. Just like going through 80+ in-person interviews before getting a job offer, twice, made me stronger as I learned to navigate all the different ways people react to my disability. The bottom line is facing self-doubt and defeat does not have to be seen as a negative, and in fact can build up a person’s self-appreciation, self-worth and self-confidence. It definitely has for me over my lifetime.

We all have battles in life. Some we win, some we lose. But there are many battles in a war and we must find ways to wage war on self-defeating attitudes. When I decided to be a lawyer as a kid, it wasn’t to be a voice for others but to help people let go of internal self-defeating attitudes and find their inner voice. And at the time I knew if someone couldn’t find their inner voice yet, I would be a voice for them until they did. That concept has never changed in all I do in life, including my fight for our kids and public schools. Once we discover we have more strength and courage than we thought, we will discover we already were OK.

Just to close, as I think of the long road ahead and the different challenges we all will likely face as we move to a new “normal” once COVID-19 is contained and we go back to most of our usual routines, I think of one of my own personal favorite quotes from the movie “Swing Time:” “Don’t lose your confidence — if you slip, be grateful for a pleasant trip and pick yourself up, dust yourself off and start all over again.” Win or lose, not only will I continue advocating for high-quality education for all our kids and community support to ensure their health, safety, and welfare, but I know I will gain a lot from this campaign and how COVID-19 has put a larger spotlight on a person’s vulnerabilities — including their disability if they have one — when running for office.

For more on the coronavirus, check out the following stories from our community:

Learn more about India Ochs.

Getty image by Katflare.

Originally published: May 18, 2020
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