It was only a few days after an accident in 1980 that caused my spinal cord injury when I noticed there were only two women on the spinal cord injury unit at Boston University Hospital. I was one of the two. When I mentioned it to my nurse, she said that men are more likely to sustain a spinal cord injury because they are risk takers, unlike most women. I remember lying there thinking that I had just inadvertently joined another club that was dominated by men. It all began when I was born into a family of 7; 5 boys and two girls. I joined the US Army in 1974 and entered an almost all male (11 women out of 800 students) state maritime academy in 1978. I worked as an engineer which, of course, was an almost all male workplace. I must admit, throughout my life, I was constantly fighting for fairness and my rights as a woman, and ultimately as a woman with a disability. I wondered more than once why I chose to put myself in these situations that made my life more difficult and challenging. I assume that being raised with boys, my sister being 9 years older and the oldest child was not as close in age as my brothers, influenced my life choices. I realize now that it also prepared me well to not only advocate for myself but more importantly for others.
I entered law school in 1990, the year the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed by Congress and signed by President George Bush, but not with the intent of focusing on disability rights. Despite having 10 years of life as a woman with a disability under my belt, I did not know much about the disability rights movement or disability legislation that existed prior to 1990. My goal upon entering law school was to combine my engineering experience with patent law training to become a patent law attorney; another male dominated club. It was the women I met while in law school and after law school that helped me identify a new direction; one I became increasingly passionate about.
I had the great opportunity to attend the ADA Network training sponsored by the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in 1992 and that training changed everything. I had the good fortune of meeting the women attorneys and advocates of the Disability Rights Education Defense Fund (DREDF) who were conducting the training. Liz Savage was most generous with her time and talked to me about her experience as a disability rights attorney. She had more influence over my decision to jettison the patent law idea and become a disability rights attorney than she will ever know.
My first job as a disability rights lawyer was at the Disability Law Center in Boston, MA thanks to the law firm Skadden Arps Meagher and Flom. I received one of 25 much coveted Skadden Fellowships and thanks to guidance from Skadden Fellowship Director, Susan Butler Plum and Skadden Partner, Peggy Brown, I began a 25-year career as a disability rights attorney. Throughout my career, I bounced between Boston and Washington, D.C. advocating for equal rights for people with disabilities.
It wasn’t long after becoming a Commissioner at the EEOC that my mission became focused on the employment of people with disabilities, the unfulfilled promise of the ADA. I became particularly interested in federal employment and the lack of opportunities afforded individuals with disabilities by our government, the largest employer in the country. With that issue at the forefront, I was able to reconnect with Joyce Bender. I had met Joyce many years before while attending the signing of the Ticket to Work Act and I was thrilled to have the chance to learn about her success getting jobs for individuals with disabilities. At the time, she was the only for-profit company finding employment for people with disabilities who had contracts with federal agencies. At the time, one of her largest federal customers was the National Security Agency (NSA). NSA was an agency that understood it didn’t matter what package people came in but how they could contribute to the agency’s mission. They were looking for certain knowledge, expertise and experience and all else could be accommodated. Joyce introduced me to the folks at NSA and they became my role model for all other agencies to follow.
We worked hard to increase employment of people with disabilities in the federal workforce for many years, but it wasn’t until I was at the Office of Personnel Management and President Obama signed an Executive Order to Increase Employment of People with Disabilities in the Federal Workforce that we began to really see changes. Once again, we turned to Joyce Bender’s expertise in this area to develop a plan for success. We got her permission to talk to her private sector and federal sector clients so we could learn what strategies they had used in the area of disability employment. What they all reported was that Bender Consulting listened to them when they described the employee they needed and delivered an employee that had exactly the skills they needed. They had learned through working with Bender over the years that it didn’t matter that the employee had a disability or that they might have to provide an accommodation because they could contribute the skills they needed in their workforce. The cost of the accommodation was worth an employee that performed well and stayed.
With that in mind, we asked Joyce and her employees (almost all have disabilities) to vet potential employees with disabilities for federal agencies that would be entered into a searchable database. A year later we began to really see significant increases in employment of people with disabilities as mandated by the Executive Order. The database continues to exist as a valuable tool for federal agencies today.
In 2011, I returned to Boston and to serve as the Assistant Secretary of Disability Policy at the Executive Office of Health and Human Services (EOHHS). Although only there for a year and a half, I had the great fortune of working for Secretary Judy Bigby, a woman physician who understood disability rights and made it easy for me to be an effective advocate within the largest government agency in the state. Our policy work impacted everything from Medicaid initiatives to employment issues within EOHHS. She always had the disability community’s back, making it easy for me to be her Assistant Secretary. From there I went back to my roots at the Disability Law Center as the Executive Director for the next 5 years.
I retired in February 2018 to stay home with my husband who now has Alzheimer’s disease. I have the time to reflect and to think about the events and people that have had an important impact on my life and career. Sure, there have been men that have had an impact – good and bad, but women like Liz Savage, Susan Butler Plum, Peggy Brown, and Judy Bigby had their own special impact on my life. It is these women I find myself reflecting on and appreciating anew how they have helped me shape the direction of my life and the impact I wanted to have on others during Women’s History Month.