DETROIT — Christopher Samp was born deaf. But he doesn’t want people to feel bad for him, or apologize upon finding out about his disability. Rather, Samp would prefer they simply smile, and join him in taking proactive steps to passionately assist Detroiters with disabilities.
Samp, a native of Troy, Mich., is currently the director of the Office of Disability Affairs for the city of Detroit. He is the first of four Game Changers that the Detroit Tigers, Detroit Red Wings and Comerica Bank are honoring during Disability Pride Month in July.
Just two months prior to the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic in January 2020, Detroit’s City Council unanimously passed a resolution for the creation of the Office of Disability Affairs. The office was then officially introduced by Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan in February 2021 in conjunction with Samp’s official hiring.
The interview for this story was conducted via email, but it didn’t have to be. Samp regularly communicates through an interpreter-relay phone number, and he said that 21st-century technology has made life easier for people with disabilities.
But to this day, Samp still deals with stereotypes and challenges that people without disabilities would have trouble understanding. Admittedly, it was a frustrating childhood.
In the 1990s as a student, Samp wore bulky assistive devices that could now be mistaken for a mobile device. Still, he ran for student government, obtained his driver’s license and volunteered in the community.
“I learned how to self-advocate and proved to everyone that I am capable of being successful like them,” Samp said. “I did not want other individuals with disabilities to suffer the mistreatment and experience social rejection multiple times because they are different. So, I have always been passionate about helping people with disabilities and standing up for them.”
After graduating from Troy High School in 2000, Samp attended Rochester Institute of Technology in New York, where he completed his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in public policy. Samp wanted to learn more about his Deaf identity, social justice issues and civil rights.
Upon returning to his hometown and taking the role as the city of Detroit’s director of the Office of Disability Affairs, Samp hit the ground running. The first item was a campaign encouraging Detroiters with disabilities to feel comfortable being vaccinated against COVID-19. That involved staying aligned with CDC and local health mandates and recommendations, and equipping Duggan with the most relevant information to engage residents with disabilities.
“My city colleagues and I quickly developed a plan to help Mayor Duggan move forward in ensuring that our residents with disabilities are cared for and receive equitable access to vaccines,” Samp said. “Additionally, I worked with the Health Department on an accessible public campaign to dispel myths and encourage people with disabilities to get vaccinated. I am proud of the work we’ve done.”
The Office of Disability Affairs, which serves more than 128,000 Detroit residents with disabilities, is currently in Phase 2 of its three-year strategic plan. The department focuses on public engagement and community partnerships, constituent services and disability awareness and Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) compliance. Recently, a budget was approved to expand the Office of Disability Affairs team.
Despite technological advances and increased resources, there is still work to be done to achieve comprehensive accessibility and inclusivity, according to Samp.
“When some people see a person with a disability, they think that person needs to be fixed into society,” Samp said. “However, inclusivity means shifting our mindset that it’s the world that is disabling and inaccessible to everyone. Providing accommodations is a reactive response. We need to treat everyone fairly and be proactive with accessibility incorporated in our designs, programs and events.”
Growing up as a Tigers and Red Wings fan, Samp remembers attending games while singing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” with his childhood peers from SCAMP, a summer camp for kids with disabilities.
In 2021, Samp began attending events at Little Caesars Arena and Comerica Park for the first time since returning to Detroit. In particular, he was pleasantly surprised to be able to scan a QR code and tune into live captioning at Little Caesars Arena on his smartphone. At the ballpark, guests can follow the live captioning feed on an LED board along the first-base line.
“Immediately, I was able to follow what was happening,” Samp said. “I stood up and shouted for joy at the same time with my peers. We love our city and want to share in the same excitement, the same sense of pride in our sports teams with other loyal fans.”
The transition to city government was a smoother process for Samp than it may be for others entering the industry. From 2010-17, he worked for the United States Senate, including as a staff and research assistant for Sen. Richard Durbin.
“I did not plan to begin my career working in the United States Senate. In fact, I was so determined to return to and help Detroit improve right after college,” Samp said. “But my college dean encouraged me to apply for a congressional internship, which then changed my perspective on politics. I quickly learned that I could influence the legislative process and serve as an asset to the legislative staff, as a person with a disability and with my public policy background.”
During those seven years of working with policy makers, community advocates and constituents, Samp conducted research, studied community trends and made recommendations to influence and shape policies. It was those skills that led him back to Detroit. It just so happens that his influence went a long way in helping people with disabilities have a better understanding of how to cope with a global pandemic.
Through it all, Samp remains focused on helping people with disabilities thrive in Detroit, now and into the future.
“It is my life mission to advocate for accessibility so individuals with disabilities are valued and have a positive experience, better than what we’ve went through in past generations,” Samp said.
To learn more about the city of Detroit’s Office of Disability Affairs and to get involved, fans are encouraged to follow the office on social media. Community listening sessions are also available to attend. Samp can be reached via email at [email protected].