Battenfeld: Blind Boston city council candidate aims for another historic first

Diversity is the theme of this year’s Boston election campaign, but voters may have another historic opportunity — to elect the first blind person to the city council.

Alex Gray, who has been completely blind due to a genetic condition since age 11, is running for city council at-large with a message of more inclusiveness for the special needs community.

“We don’t often get included in the larger conversations (about diversity),” the 37-year-old Gray, who lives in Jamaica Plain, said. “There’s such a stigma around disabilities. Having a disability hasn’t always been easy but it’s a part of your life that shapes you and makes you stronger … it doesn’t have to be something you are ashamed of.”

A key component of Gray’s agenda is a new proposal to insure that one seat on the appointed Boston School Committee goes to someone who has personally lived the special education experience.

While some 21 percent of Boston school children have special needs, there is no one dedicated from the special needs community who sits on the panel running the school system.

There’s been a lot of talk in this year’s race over whether there should be an elected or appointed school committee, but adding Gray’s proposal to the mix makes sense. Reserving one seat on the seven-member committee for someone with special needs seems like the least the school system should do for its struggling special needs students.

“A lot of parents are fighting just to get the bare minimum needed for their kids,” Gray said.

Right now the mayor, along with a special nominating panel, controls who gets on the school committee. Under Gray’s plan the nominating panel would be instructed to find someone with special needs.

Even if he weren’t blind, Gray would have a compelling argument for his campaign. Although just 37, he’s a graduate of Suffolk Law and has already been in key roles in the Deval Patrick and Marty Walsh administrations, helping develop the city’s tuition-free community college plan.

Gray, who grew up in Quincy, right now is wrapping up getting enough signatures to get on the ballot — a tall order for the candidates grappling with the coronavirus pandemic. And even tougher given Gray’s disability.

But he said he’s been campaigning since last September, has raised about $70,000 in campaign funds, and feels he’s secured well over the 1,500 signatures needed to run.

There will be at least two vacancies in the at-large council race, due to incumbents Michelle Wu and Annissa Essaibi George running in the mayor’s race, so Gray at least has a shot at winning. He will be running against other candidates who talk a lot about the importance of diversity, but Gray is the only one who knows what it’s like to have a serious disability.

As far as he knows, Gray would become just the second blind person in the country to serve on a city council.

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