Inside the White House’s Disability AdvocacyApril 20, 2012
Last summer, National Student Advisory Council member Odunola “Ola” Ojewumi was an intern at the White House, where she hosted a briefing on the importance of youth mentorship in low-income communities. Ojewumi, who is herself passionate about disability rights, recently spoke with White House Director of Priority Placement Rebecca Cokley about her work as an advocate for disabled youth.
As a woman living with a disability, what experiences sparked your interest in advancing the lives of disabled youth?
When I was in junior high school, a younger friend of mine at another school was thrown into a dumpster by some bullies at lunchtime and could not get out. No one in the school reported him missing from class, and it wasn’t until later that evening when he didn’t come home from Boy Scouts that his parents went to look for him. The next day, he carried an 18-inch baseball bat to school to defend himself and was expelled for harboring a weapon. When his parents reached out to a number of advocates — including my mom — to mediate with the school, the principal responded that “boys will be boys” and that my friend “should just get used” to the teasing.
The teachers and administrators at the junior high school I went to would never have tolerated that type of behavior, and it blew my mind that there were people in the world working with children who thought it was OK to treat young people with disabilities horribly.
I was lucky — until I got to high school and my guidance counselor told me, “Kids like you don’t go here.” I was enrolled in honors classes, was already taking steps toward becoming a nationally recognized [disability] advocate, and had been planning on ending up on the U.S. Supreme Court someday, and here was this man telling me that he didn’t think people like me should attend his school. Unlike most youth with disabilities, both of my parents had the same disability as me, and both were college-educated advocates in their own right. My mother quickly stepped in and appealed to the principal, who was embarrassed and apologetic for the behavior of his staff member. But I never got over the idea that an adult, a leader in the school, just by looking at me decided that I wasn’t eligible.
You are a mother, a wife, and a key member of the Obama administration. How do you juggle all of these roles?
When I had first joined the administration and wasn’t yet pregnant, U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice was hosting a conference call, and someone asked her about balancing work and family. And she responded that if you want a family, you have to make it a priority — you can’t wait until the time is right, because there’s never a time that’s right. In a lot of ways, this really spoke to me and in some ways gave me permission to start a family. I also have a completely amazing husband who is truly my best friend and champion. He makes me a better person in every respect, and from the moment I found out I was pregnant, he has worked to make his life more flexible. It also helps that I have a boss who has children of her own.
What are your responsibilities and goals as White House director of priority placement?
The president has asked us to create an administration that reflects the diversity of America. It matters who sits at the table. My role is reaching beyond the Beltway to communities that often don’t get a seat at the table and bringing those voices into the administration. The best part of my job is reaching out to a candidate who has submitted their information on whitehouse.gov and telling them that I’m calling from the White House and would like to talk to them about a potential role in the administration. Most of the time people think that I’m prank calling. But to reach out to someone who truly believes in the work that we’re doing and wants to improve the lives of all Americans and say “hey, we want your voice in this discussion” — it’s amazing.
As a youth development specialist for the National Collaborative on Workforce and Disability for Youth, you created new avenues for employment. What does equal employment opportunity mean for the thousands of young people who are living with disabilities?
Equal employment means — to me — going beyond a functional shift and resulting in a philosophical shift in the expectations of young people with disabilities so that in elementary school when students present what they want to be when they grow up, no one will say that a kid with a disability cannot be an astrophysicist, a lawyer, a chef, or whatever they may want to be. Equal employment opportunities mean that youth with disabilities do not have to limit themselves to working in the eight F’s of disability employment: food, filth, filing, flowers, fetching, folding, friendly, or festive. That’s not to diminish those important jobs, and it doesn’t mean that if that’s what you want to do that you shouldn’t pursue those paths. But you should not find your goals limited to just those things.
July 2010 was the 20th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. How has the ADA impacted your life?
A few years before the ADA passed, my mom was on the tenure track at the college she worked at. She ended up being denied tenure, and one of the reasons she was denied was that she was only able to use the bottom six inches of the chalkboard. My mom had worked her whole life to improve the lives of students with disabilities, and here she was being directly discriminated against because of her own disability. Post-ADA, she received tenure.
How is the Obama administration working to increase the presence of people with disabilities in the American workforce?
The president believes that the government must serve as an example. In 2010, he signed Executive Order 13548, which was designed to make the federal government serve as a model employer for people with disabilities. Agencies are developing training programs for their [human resources] staff, and agencies are to develop model recruitment and hiring strategies. I think the president also understands how important it is for the public to see people with different types of disabilities in his administration.
What do you believe is the largest obstacle facing youth with disabilities?
False expectations — from our families, from society, and from ourselves.
What words of wisdom or advice can you give our readers, some of whom are among the thousands of disabled young women and girls the White House is advocating for?
My desire for you is that you be successful in whatever you want to do in your life. You don’t need to be officially working as an advocate at a disability organization or a center for independent living. We need people with disabilities succeeding everywhere in the public and private sectors. If you want to be a chef, then go for it, but I better see you being awarded Michelin stars. That’s how you lead — by serving as an example and being successful in something you love to do and not conforming to anyone’s expectations of what they think you should do. I’d also encourage you to look for mentors outside of your community. In joining the Obama administration, two of the best mentors I’ve had are leaders in the LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender] community. They’ve taught me so much about being an effective political appointee, working with diverse communities, and how to maneuver the challenges of leadership. I don’t doubt I am more effective in my job because of both of them.
As an Obama administration official, which of your accomplishments has been most meaningful?
I feel like we accomplish something extraordinary every time we appoint someone to a position in the administration who brings a new voice to the table or a new set of personal experiences that contribute to the carrying out of the president’s vision for America.
When did you decide to become involved in public policy?
I grew up with a passion for politics. I remember being a little kid and getting to stay up late on election night watching the returns come in. I came to Washington in 2004 in large part because I felt that I hadn’t done my part in the 2000 election and wanted to make a change.
When a family friend, Paul Miller, was appointed as the deputy director of the U.S. Office of Consumer Affairs and White House liaison to the disability community in the Clinton administration, it really struck home that someone like me could be asked to serve the president. And when I’d hear Miller talk about it, he’d sound so matter of fact about it when speaking to crowds but among friends was so excited about the chance to serve, the chance to show his colleagues on a daily basis that people with disabilities could and should fully contribute alongside their non-disabled peers.
This post was written by National Student Advisory Council member Ola Ojewumi.