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The Future of Disability Rights in the White House

An interview with Maria Town, outgoing disability liaison at the Office of Public Engagement.

By David M. Perry


Greenpeace protesters unfold a banner from atop a construction crane on January 25th, 2017, in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

The White House Office of Public Engagement, known as the Office of Public Liaison before 2009, is supposed to provide everyone in America with a voice in a given administration. If you belong to any kind of group, there is (or should be) a community liaison at the office — someone in the OPE tasked with understanding your needs and issues, knowing the administration’s position and policies, and facilitating conversations among the various parts of the government and between the government and the public.

From May of 2015 until early January of this year, the disability community turned to Maria Town, a senior associate director at the OPE. Town, a woman from Louisiana with cerebral palsy, went to college at Emory University, where she worked with some of the nation’s leading scholars in disability studies, and from there launched a career in policy and advocacy. She’s just about to turn 30, and, thanks to her work with the Obama administration, has become one of the disability rights community’s most visible leaders.

I’ve met with Town many times over the last few years on my disability rights beat, and spoke with her over the phone just a few days after she formally stepped down from the White House.

Of course, within hours of the inauguration of Donald Trump, the website took down its pages on disability rights, including the page labeled “Contact the Disability Issues Outreach Team.” What happens next on disability rights and the White House is anyone’s guess. We’ll be watching.

What does a senior associate director actually do? What did a typical day or week look like for you at the OPE?

No day really looked the same. In the OPE, our job is to make sure that real people can connect with the White House and have their voices heard and [to make sure] that the president is aware of what the people are saying. The kind of flip side of that is to make sure that advocates and interested parties are aware of what the president’s priorities are. We do that in a couple of different ways.

The big one is that we are keeping our finger on the pulse of what folks are thinking. So specifically I managed the disability community portfolio and the seniors’ portfolio. So I was always paying attention to what was happening in the disability community, following major news stories, and similarly for seniors. I also had our agency portfolio, so that when major agencies wanted to roll out new rules, I would make sure they could use White House spaces, for example.

One day I might be hosting briefings with the disability community on budget issues around Social Security, and in the same day I might be making sure that a disability community member who has passed away received a condolence letter from the president, and then coordinating with groups with older Americans around the passage of the Older Americans Act.

Every day I would track clips, [handle] persistent requests for tours, and make sure people could come into the White House and access it. And for anniversaries like the commemoration of the Americans With Disability Act (ADA), make sure the tours featured artifacts of disability history.

And every day I would have to write up significant highlights from what I did, or write up significant events that may have occurred in the communities or things that agencies were flagging, so the senior leadership could be aware and respond.

Can you give an example of events you flagged and got responses?

The murders in Japan I flagged, so the next day I could organize a briefing between Japanese disability leaders and the Department of State and discuss how to move things forward.

So how did you get this job?

Before I worked for the White House, I spent four and a half years at the Department of Labor Office of Disability Employment Policy, specifically on the youth policy team. In that position, and in positions even before that, I spent a lot of time trying to get to know the disability community and disability history and culture. While I was working at the Department of Labor, I started a blog called CP Shoes, CP standing for cerebral palsy, the disability that I have. Through [the blog] I developed a big network of people with disabilities who were interested in online advocacy.


(Photo: Maria Town)

One thing I want to stress, for all these positions, whether African-American liaison or LGBTQ liaison or disability liaison, is that it’s not just enough to have the disability and let that inform my work, if that makes sense. On a daily basis, I had to work through concerns through the autistic community, for example, so I had to know who to contact in that community. Or address long-term supports and services or people with dementia, with which I have no personal experience, so I had to spend a lot of time learning the ins and outs of the communities.

[In the OPE], the disability liaison position had been a “Detail” for quite a long time, which means that they had been people on loan from other federal agencies for a short period of time. I was really lucky to have known both previous disability community liaisons, Claudia Gordon and Taryn Williams, When Taryn’s term was coming to an end, [the community was] talking about who was going to get this job yet, and I remember thinking I would be really good at that, but it’s not my time yet. I thought you had to be more established to get a job like that.

But the White House hires a lot of young people, and the OPE was looking for folks who were motivated and could work quickly under pressure, who knew the communities well, but were also willing to think outside the box.

What are some of your proudest achievements?

One of the things that I’m really proud of, and one of the struggles I had in this position, is that I spent a lot of my time working on physical accessibility issues. Making sure that the White House bowling alley is accessible, even though I’m not a technical compliance specialist. I had to learn about a lot of issues related to accessibility. But in part we were able to get the position of chief accessibility officer in the executive office of the president. That’s a career position, so does not transition out when the president leaves, and whose job it is to make the White House more accessible.

One of the other things, and this just happened on my very last day — and there couldn’t be a more appropriate way to end my time at the White House — we finished regulations related to Section 501 of the Rehabilitation Act. It’s one of those moments for me, reflecting back, where I realized the power of my office.

These section 501 regulations institutionalize a lot of the best practices of the executive order and give teeth to affirmative action for people with disabilities in the federal government. They also fund the executive order and — and this is what I’m really excited about — they [make clear] that personal services are a reasonable accommodation. Which means that people with disabilities can know they can find a good job in the federal government.

For the 20th anniversary of the ADA (this was in 2010), I was still working in Atlanta, watching the 20th anniversary event that occurred on the South Lawn, where the president signed an executive order of federal hiring of people with disabilities in the federal government. I remember watching and thinking, “What would it take to be there?” I wanted to be in the room where it happened.

At that time, I was 22 (not to give away my age — my mother would be mad). I remember wondering what kind of real impact it would have. The executive order was incredibly successful. We set out a goal to hire 100,000 people with disabilities in five years. By 2016, we not only met, but surpassed that goal, with 109,554 permanent career people with disabilities working for the federal government.

There’s no better way on my last day to leave than with those regulations out.

Can you give me an example of a time when you were frustrated?

There’s one thing I can say that’s pretty personal and says a lot about disability and its work. The White House job was the first professional experience I’ve had where I’ve really felt like my disability put me at a disadvantage. Even if you don’t work at the White House you watch a show like West Wing and you see the walk and talks and you see how fast people are moving.

That is literally, physically, something I cannot do. I cannot be on my work Blackberry and be emailing and be moving to the next meeting down the hall. I literally can’t have side conversations as I’m walking to go get something done.

When I started, I had to come to terms with my feelings. And it’s not that people in the White House made me feel. I never got any impression from my colleagues that I wasn’t performing where I needed to be. This is all me, internalized ableism, and worrying that my portfolios were suffering because I couldn’t push myself as much as my colleagues could.

Where I had to get to, very personally, was [to learn] two things. One: My own pacing would make other people adjust their pace as well. And that is a moment where folks can learn about access and inclusion. Second: People with disabilities experience these kinds of things in the workplace and their communities all of the time. So if I’m able to be honest about my experiences that I’m having in this workplace that I think really does get inclusion, but may not look like it all the time, I’m doing my job better.

It’s a place where internalized ableism reared its ugly head, but also a constant reminder of the barriers to people with disabilities.

Ten years from now, what would you like to be doing?

If I had magic, I would create my own shoe line and change the way that shoes are sold. I hope that, in 10 years, I would be able to get the capital to do that.

When I started in the White House, I tried to wear standard-issue women’s professional flats. My job did require being on my feet and moving around from one place to another. I wound up being in a lot of pain and tearing through these shoes at a rate I could not sustain given my personal finances. So I started wearing sneakers every day! And at first I was worried about what would happen if I had to brief Valerie Jarrett in a pair of sneakers. Would she say, “Get your act together”? That never happened. I met with the president while wearing a pair of high-top shoes, and he was cool of it.

But people with disabilities, because of ableism and societal pressures, feel like we can’t make the slightest mistake and we can’t deviate from the norm in the slightest degree, or we will lose any chance.

Shoes are a great example of this! I don’t understand why we have to buy two shoes at a time. I would love to figure out a way to change that.

This interview has been edited for brevity.