Build Back Better, Build Back Accessible: Appointees Reflect on National Disability Employment Awareness Month
By Emily Voorde (she/her)
In honor of National Disability Employment Awareness Month this past October, Emily Voorde, Associate Director for Disability Community Engagement in the White House Office of Public Engagement, spoke with Taryn Williams, Assistant Secretary for Disability Employment Policy at the Department of Labor, and Kelly Buckland, Disability Advisor in the Office of the Assistant Secretary on Policy at the Department of Transportation.
This National Disability Employment Awareness Month, I spoke with Assistant Secretary Taryn Williams and Mr. Kelly Buckland about their work advocating for the disability community, the importance of diverse perspectives in the Administration, and their advice for people with disabilities who want to serve. This interview was edited for clarity and length.
EV: For our readers who might not know, this year’s National Disability Employment Awareness Month theme is “America’s Recovery: Powered by Inclusion.”
The pandemic has had disproportionate impacts on people with disabilities, on our community – those who already face long-standing inequities in employment, and now, often experience heightened health risks and work in the hardest-hit industries. This year’s theme reflects the importance of ensuring that people with disabilities have full access to employment.
How do you see your service in the Administration through the lens of this theme?
TW: In the Office of Disability Employment Policy, our mission is to increase employment opportunities for people with disabilities. We do this through multiple strategies – we conduct research and analyses, lead and coordinate across agencies, develop new policies, and provide targeted technical assistance, such as job accommodations.
Our work is really shaped to work across the Department of Labor, the broader federal government, and employers outside of government. We work with all levels of government, including local levels, and stakeholders of all kinds.
As an agency, we’re thinking about all the work we can do to assist workers with disabilities to find employment, including those who have lost a job as a result of the pandemic. Making sure that people receive the needed accommodations and support has long been a focus of ours. We’ve also done work surrounding the promotion of best practices for workplace mental health. In light of the pandemic, we know mental health has been impacted – our recovery needs to have consideration of that as well.
KB: As a Disability Advisor at the Department of Transportation, I’m working across all types of transportation. And there’s a disability piece to all types – whether it’s bus, rail, or air transportation.
We could be working on accessibility in restrooms on aircrafts, or the feasibility of people flying on planes in their own wheelchairs. And on the ground, we need to think about accessibility on sidewalks, curbs, roads, and street crossings.
The pandemic has certainly affected the transit systems; public transportation really took a big hit when the pandemic hit. This fits into the recovery part of the theme because we need to get transportation geared back up – and we need to do that with accessibility in mind.
EV: I want to turn our attention to a number I know we’re all tracking: the number of appointees who self-identify as disabled.
Since the 100-day mark of the Administration, the number of Disabled appointees has doubled. This National Disability Employment Awareness Month, we’re proud of the 6% of appointees who self-identify as disabled – and I know we hope to see that number only climb.
Both OPE and PPO are committed to building an administration that engages with diverse voices and truly looks like America. Can you tell us about the importance of having diverse perspectives represented in the Administration?
TW: There are so many ways to think about this. Part of this is that we’re not just building an inclusive recovery, but rather, a vision for an inclusive country. In order to affect that change, as part of the Administration, we have a responsibility to consider and advance policies that are inclusive of everyone, including people with disabilities.
Every policy affects people with disabilities; disability affects so many people in this country. It’s a community that people can enter at any point in their lives, and it’s a community that people can enter and depart. Given the diverse nature of disability in and of itself, it’s a necessity that we are inclusive of diverse perspectives.
I’m excited about the number of appointees who self-identify as disabled doubling, and I’m looking forward to the number going even higher.
KB: I agree with Taryn – I’m proud that it’s 6%, and I’m excited to see it grow higher in the future. I think that diversity is really important in the White House – and everywhere else – because when you don’t have everyone’s voices, you don’t do the best job you can do. We need to have an inclusive administration to do things the right way.
This administration excited me, especially its commitment to investing in infrastructure. We can make the world so much of a better place if we build back better and build back accessible while we’re doing it. We need everyone’s voice – and that includes people of color with disabilities, people of all genders with disabilities – to build back correctly.
EV: We want to honor the multitude of ways people with disabilities contribute to America’s workplaces – including at the top levels of public service, as you two are doing right now.
What motivated you to pursue public service?
KB: I never aspired to become a federal bureaucrat – but this administration’s objectives, where we are in the world right now, and the opportunity to make big changes are what really interested me in coming to work for the Biden-Harris Administration. We have so many big things that we can do – big, culture-changing things. That’s what got me excited about working in this administration.
TW: I was interested in public service early on, and I majored in public policy. I started off working in nonprofits, and then, a mentor told me, “If you really want to understand public policy, you should work in government at some point – it can be local or federal, for a long time or for a few years.”
I took that advice and thought I would spend a couple years in government – and somehow it became a decade. After leaving government for a little while, I found myself back in government again. Working in public service, working in government, you have the ability to influence real change, and to really understand how policy can create that change.
EV: What advice would you give to people with disabilities who want to serve, but don’t know where to start?
TW: I would just say that I want people to know that we need them – we need the disability community working for government when it comes to really impacting the policy process. At least once per day I say, “Nothing about us, without us.” How do we do that? We make sure that we’re in the room.
And absolutely reach out to mentors – I wouldn’t be where I am without them. Sometimes a thirty-minute conversation with someone can really have a significant impact on your trajectory. Reach out to us or others in the community. We want to support you and make sure you meet your goals – we recognize that helps the entire community.
KB: I would just emphasize that the whole process of serving in government can be very intimidating and mysterious to how it actually works. Reach out to us and others – because we do need people with disabilities in the Administration to get us where we want to go.
Kelly Buckland is a person with a disability who has been actively involved in disability issues since 1979. He served for over twenty years as the Executive Director of the Living Independence Network Corporation and the Idaho State Independent Living Council in Boise, Idaho. Buckland has been honored with numerous state and national awards, including the University of Idaho President’s Medallion, the Hewlett-Packard Distinguished Achievement in Human Rights Award, Outstanding Alumni of Boise State University, and Outstanding Alumni of Drake University. Additionally, Buckland has a long history with the National Council on Independent Living (NCIL). He served as NCIL Vice-President from 2001 to 2005, NCIL President from 2005 to 2009, and NCIL Executive Director from 2009 to 2021. Buckland graduated from Boise State University with a bachelor’s degree in social work and Drake University with a master’s degree in rehabilitation counseling.
Emily Voorde currently serves as Assistant Director in the White House Office of Public Engagement and the Administration’s liaison to Disabled Americans. A former classroom teacher and K-12 education policymaker, much of her work in the White House is ensuring that space is carved out for Disabled voices – in “disability-specific” conversations, of course, but more importantly in spaces across policy issues.
Taryn Mackenzie Williams is the Assistant Secretary of Labor for Disability Employment Policy. In this position, she advises the Secretary of Labor on how the Department’s policies and programs impact the employment of people with disabilities and leads the Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP). Previously, Williams was the managing director for the Poverty to Prosperity Program at American Progress, which works on progressive policies focused on a broad range of anti-poverty strategies. Before joining American Progress, she worked at ODEP on a variety of issues related to education, workforce policy, Social Security, Medicaid, and civil rights. Prior to joining the federal government, Williams worked as the research coordinator for leadership programs at the Institute for Educational Leadership and as the director of programs at the National Association of Urban Debate Leagues headquartered in Chicago. She holds a bachelor’s degree in public policy from Brown University and a master’s degree in education with a concentration in administration, planning, and social policy from Harvard University. She resides in Washington, D.C.