Alex Gray was 8 years old when he lost his sight due to a birth defect.
Going blind made him rely more on other senses, which was itself an education.
“I was not born a great listener,” he said. “I know that because my mom has videos to prove it.”
“I had to learn how to listen to succeed,” he said.
He listened well.
He went to Boston College, where the Jesuits inspired him to use all the human gifts, especially empathy. While some classmates spent spring break on the beaches of Florida, he spent his in Appalachia, working with the poor.
“It stirred a passion in me,” he said.
When he got out of BC, he spent a year in a Jesuit volunteer program, working with the homeless in Sacramento.
“I helped facilitate the meals process, but a big part of it, honestly, was providing conversation and companionship, because loneliness is a byproduct of homelessness,” he said.
When he came back home, he worked for the Massachusetts Housing and Shelter Alliance, advocating for the homeless. He earned a degree at Suffolk Law School and became then-governor Deval Patrick’s policy adviser on transportation and public safety. He later joined the administration of then-mayor Marty Walsh, first in the executive office, then the office of workforce development, a job he’ll be leaving soon.
He and his wife live in Jamaica Plain.
Oh, and he’s running for an at-large seat on the City Council.
If elected, Gray would presumably become the first blind member of the Boston City Council. Although there is no national clearinghouse on such information, Gray said the only blind city councilor in the United States that he knows of is Yolanda Avila, who has been on the City Council of Colorado Springs since 2017.
The jump from policy wonk, working outside of the limelight, to politician, always in the limelight, is not a small one.
“I knew I could do the job from a policy perspective, but it’s a big leap,” he acknowledged. “You give up your time, your privacy. But, you know, I thought about all the conversations I’ve had, in public life, and I felt like, if I wasn’t there, disability might have been left out of those discussions.”
When we talk about diversity and inclusion in our politics, that discussion usually orbits around race, gender, and sexual orientation. But disability needs to be part of that discussion, too, and people with disabilities have a perspective that others often lack.
Gray believes people with disabilities often have attributes that make them especially suited for public service.
“People with disabilities have reservoirs of patience,” he said. “They are also highly adaptable.”
He says the City Council will be crucial to helping the city recover from the pandemic.
“A city councilor has two roles,” he said. “One is to offer the best constituent services possible. The second piece is policy making, and COVID and how we recover fits into everything, from equity to housing. Housing comes up so much. Investing in resources for first-generation home buyers, helping renters, so they have access to legal counsel, to avoid evictions. For seniors and people with disabilities, building accessible and adaptable units is huge. Jobs are going to be a big part of it. One of the pillars of the Boston economy is the hospitality industry, and they’ve been hit so hard.”
Gray says addressing long-existing racial inequities is an imperative for the city and City Council. So, he says, is addressing how to make life better for people with disabilities, which has “a natural place in that equity conversation.”
When he meets voters while campaigning, Gray’s disability is a natural starting point.
“It comes up a lot,” he said. “Overwhelmingly positive. I’m optimistic. When I talk to young people, inclusion comes natural to them. Parents in the special-education system connect, because I faced challenges in the public school system. It’s the first time a blind candidate has talked to them.”
Hopefully, it won’t be the last.
Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.