In fall 2000, Dr. Ruth Simmons was elected the first African-American president of an Ivy League institution, Brown University. I was a junior there at the time, and in fact walking across its main green when the news started to spread. At that moment, I realized history was being made − and I was witnessing it.
I remembered that day when learning this year’s Black History Month theme is “Hallowed Grounds: Sites of African-American Memories.” Every year, the list of places where African-Americans have contributed to our nation’s story steadily grows. Dr. Simmons’ arrival in Providence was a formative moment in our history, as well as a formative moment for me.
During her tenure at Brown, Dr. Simmons spearheaded numerous innovative and successful programs to bring the campus together, including increasing access to education and employment for diverse populations. As a young African-American woman, I learned a great deal from her leadership, and looking back, her influence significantly shaped the course of my career. Today, along with my dedicated colleagues at the department’s Office of Disability Employment Policy, I work to advance the diversity of the nation’s workforce through increased inclusion of people with disabilities − like me.
Because of my work and my relationship to both communities, I have often been struck by the commonalities African-Americans and people with disabilities have faced in the struggle for equality. In fact, the leaders of the disability rights movement − which was only just emerging in the 1960s − took their cues from African-American civil rights leaders, applying similar strategies to change attitudes and ensure basic protections that resulted in the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.
We’ve made a lot of progress 25 years since the ADA was signed; however, much work remains to be done, especially when it comes to ensuring equal access to employment. African-American civil rights leaders knew when they planned the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom” in August 1963 that economic empowerment through work is essential to advancement for any group fighting against marginalization. This same principle underpins our work at ODEP.
Because of this interwoven experience, we in ODEP are proud to celebrate Black History Month. And we’re even prouder to ensure the door-opening work of African-American leaders extends to all Americans, including those of us with disabilities. As it was (and is) for them, this work is incremental, and the journey will span decades. But I’m confident that we as a nation will emerge stronger for having taken it.
Taryn Williams is the chief of staff for the Office of Disability Employment Policy.