Last month, I celebrated my fifth year as a policy advisor in the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy. To other people, that might not sound remarkable, but it was a huge milestone for me.
I identify as he/him Latin X, a person with a disability and part of the LGBTQI+ community. I was born prematurely, at five months, as a first-generation American. My parents didn’t know how to care for a disabled child. Subsequently, I ended up in foster care for most of my childhood and, because of the need for accessibility in my foster placements, I moved around a lot. It was hard to find a family for me with an accessible home, so I was often put in a state hospital or group home. As a result, I felt an overwhelming sense of not belonging.
Growing up I never saw anybody with a disability employed, let alone anyone with my skin color. I conformed to feel like I belonged, which confused any sense of identity that I would later develop. To me, conforming also offered an opportunity to disappear. At around age 17, I realized that I was gay and I grappled with that reality, too. After all, I had already faced discrimination and rejection as a child based on my disability and heritage. I struggled to reconcile all the identities that set me apart. It wasn’t until my early 20s that I realized I was unique – and that I could use my identities as strengths – to improve opportunities for myself and open doors for others.
I started my career working as an advocate and benefits counselor for people with disabilities. This eventually led me to my job at ODEP, where today I work on a number of initiatives supporting the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, designed, in part, to advance equity for people with disabilities through employment and economic empowerment. I feel my life experiences bring a special sense of understanding to my work. I take pride in helping others with disabilities, whatever their identities, avoid the systemic poverty and isolation I experienced. For example, I help create policies and resources that promote competitive, integrated employment for people with disabilities, as well as develop and share resources to assist people with disabilities as they strive to achieve financial stability.
Indeed, my work is a major contributor to my strong sense of belonging and pride, and now I have a deep gratitude for all of my diverse identities. They’ve empowered me to leverage my intersectionality, bring my whole self to work, and pave the way for other unique individuals like myself to thrive – with pride – as members of our nation’s workforce and communities.
Andy Arias is a policy advisor in the department’s Office of Disability Employment Policy.