This year marks 20 years since the department’s Office of Disability Employment Policy was created. In honor of this milestone, ODEP Deputy Assistant Secretary Jennifer Sheehy recently talked to Neil Romano, who served as ODEP’s assistant secretary from 2008 to 2009.
Sheehy: How did you move into disability policy from your marketing and public relations background?
Romano: A key turning point came when I spoke before the President’s Committee for People with Intellectual Disabilities. They wanted to discuss how to get more people to notice what they were doing. I started learning what the problems were, or at least perceived to be, related to employment and decided to do a survey. Until then, the literature was all focused on employers’ attitudes. I wanted to find out how consumers felt, since their attitudes can influence employers’. So I collaborated with Dr. [Gary] Siperstein at the University of Massachusetts Boston to conduct a survey. We found that consumers responded positively towards companies that employ people with disabilities. So, the transition probably started there. But looking back, disability was always a significant part of my life.
Sheehy: What do you mean by that?
Romano: I’m a person with a disability myself. I have serious dyslexia, and it impacted me growing up, especially in school and in understanding people’s low expectations of people with disabilities. My cousin Mary, who lived with my family, had Down syndrome, so I saw disability through that lens. And my father’s closest friend was a blind evangelist who was the most intelligent and accomplished person I knew as a child. So I learned that people with disabilities, when given the opportunity, could do great things.
But what really informed my advocacy on behalf of people with disabilities was my brother, Robert, who was a quadriplegic from the Vietnam War. I saw first-hand the difficulties he faced because of low expectations, and I recall him telling me, “In America, people always ask you two questions when you meet for the first time: What’s your name, and what do you do?” He said if you don’t have an answer to that second question, the conversation ends. It just devastated me because I knew it was true.
Sheehy: What were your first thoughts upon accepting the job and upon arriving at DOL?
Romano: Well, in the period between nomination and confirmation, I think I terrified some of the staff because I drafted about 300 pages of what I wanted to do! I knew I had less than a year, but I vowed to do two years’ worth of work. The main thing was trying to figure out how to make ODEP’s work more impactful and sought after across the country.
Sheehy: Under your leadership, ODEP embarked on what you called “a conversation with the American people.” Why did you feel this was important?
Romano: I felt we didn’t know how to talk to people, and especially businesses. I didn’t want to reinvent what ODEP was doing; it had remarkable people doing remarkable work. But we needed to push it out better. I wanted to engage big businesses because they have leeway to act and experiment. But I also wanted to reach small businesses, where every employee is critical, to explain that people with disabilities could be a big part of improving their business.
Sheehy: The Campaign for Disability Employment (CDE) started under your tenure. Can you tell us about the impetus behind that?
Romano: The goal with the CDE was to translate wonky policy speak in a way that had real meaning to real people. But it was also a way to bring people together, which is something ODEP had the power to do in a way others did not. I saw many good groups doing good work, but they didn’t have the resources to do something substantive on a national scale. So, I said, let’s bring them together and give them the resources and latitude to do so. So, they came together, created a mission and a message, and started producing PSAs. I hoped it would have a shelf life, so I’m grateful to the next assistant secretary, you and everyone who believed in and carried on that vision.
Sheehy: Since your time at ODEP, you’ve served as Chair of the National Council on Disability and remain a member today. From that perspective, what do you feel are the most pressing issues?
Romano: My priorities haven’t changed since ODEP. I still believe employment is the most important issue because it’s the most important issue for anyone. The elimination of sub-minimum wages is also a passion because of my core belief that everybody is created equal. Another priority for me, one I gained a personal perspective on, is supporting people who age into disability. After leaving ODEP, I got leukemia, and it opened my eyes to living with a chronic illness and disparities in health care. There are many people in America whose health care is not complete because our system doesn’t allow them full access, which is unacceptable. It’s a matter of equity, just like employment.