I first met Tony Coelho at a Mitsubishi Electric America Foundation meeting, in Washington, DC, where he was the keynote speaker. The topic was "his story" and the national plight of the tragic level of unemployment of people with disabilities. That speech was in 1998. Since then, two things have not changed – people with disabilities still have an extremely high rate of unemployment and Tony Coelho has never stopped telling his powerful story. I guess no one told Tony that a former congressman can retire and just settle. Settle is not a word in Tony Coelho’s vocabulary.
Tony had a life-changing accident as a teenager. He, without his father's permission, rode with his brother in the family truck on their farm. His brother wrecked the truck and that incident wrecked the next part of his life.
After the accident, his family found him one day, while milking a cow, passed out on the floor. They, of course, took him to doctor after doctor. After all of these visits, his mother told him none of the doctors knew what was wrong. For that reason, Tony was forced to meet with "witch-doctors" to perform incantations that would "cure" him. It did not work. Tony decided he would just live with this undiagnosed illness.
Tony went on to be student government president and outstanding senior in college; he was incredibly popular and heavily recruited by companies. To all of his fraternity brothers’ surprise, Tony decided to enter the seminary to be a Catholic priest; first, he had to have a physical. During that process, Tony learned that he could not be a Catholic priest; they discovered this unidentified spell was in fact epilepsy! When he called his parents to tell them he finally knew what was wrong, they told him "No son of ours has epilepsy." That's right, his parents knew, they just did not want to acknowledge their son had this “demonic disorder” – hence the witch-doctors. Can you imagine what this would do to you? Afterwards, the companies he applied to were not interested when they found out Tony had epilepsy. Back then, employment applications, prior to the ADA, asked applicants what medications and/or disabilities they had.
Tony was rejected by his church, by his family, and by all employers. What could be more demoralizing? When Tony shares his story, he tells others at this point he became an alcoholic and suicidal. He though goes on to say that he was saved by children. He saw children getting on and off a merry-go-round with no fear-no worries. Tony decided he would be like those children and he never looked back again-no fear.
A Jesuit Priest called Tony to tell him that the comedian Bob Hope was looking for someone to live with his family for one year, working in an internship position. Through this experience and with Bob Hope's mentoring, Tony went on to become a Congressman in California, and then a whip in Congress!
As a leader in the Congress, Tony, the incredible man he is, went on to have the most important and majestic accomplishment; he authored the American with Disabilities Act! Is this not unbelievable? Wow!
Fast-forward to when I met Tony in 1998…he served as the Chair of the President's Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities; in this position, Tony reported to President Bill Clinton. I have never been the same since I met Tony.
I am so blessed to have met him. See, I too am living with epilepsy. But, when I met Tony, I referred to it as a seizure disorder. Tony told me, "Joyce, you don't have a seizure disorder, you have epilepsy." And so I have had and still have epilepsy since that day.
Tony went on to become my mentor (how lucky am I) and he empowered me. As the CEO of Bender Consulting Services, I have made the employment of people with disabilities my crusade. When I met Tony, I had six employees and one customer. Today, we work in 20 states and two provinces of Canada. We have found employment for over 800 people with disabilities. One of our big customers is the National Security Agency – it doesn't get better than that!
Tony empowered me to believe that I could do anything. He never patronized me or treated me different than any of the other thousands of people he has helped. He is loyal. He has stood by my side ever since we met and helps me reach higher.
I am very honored to say he is the chair of the Bender Advisory Board and he does this at no fee. He does this to help me succeed in helping others…people with disabilities gain competitive employment.
Tony has served as the chair of the board of the national Epilepsy Foundation and fights the fight everyday for young people and adults living with epilepsy. He also served as the chair of the board of the American Association of People with Disabilities. Did I mention he has been incredibly successful in business and ran a Presidential Campaign?
Tony is known in the disability community as our champion-our voice. He not only authored the ADA, he was the leader behind the ADA Amendments Act, is currently the leader on ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, and has been working on seeing stronger affirmative action regulations (Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act) a reality for 25 years.
Tony lives this crusade every single day. He does not have to do it he does it because he wants to do it. He never settles. His passion cannot be extinguished.
For all of us, Tony has the ministry he wanted to have in his youth. He is our saint.
Tony, all of us with disabilities say thank you…thank you for not choosing to settle.