My journey to becoming a disability and policy professional has been unconventional, and growing up, I definitely did not think I would follow the career path I did.
I was taken away from my parents and put into the foster care system when I was 6 years old. From an early age, I focused on being self-sufficient and independent. I knew I had to depend on myself in order to accomplish my goals. The people in the foster care system simply saw me as a child with a significant disability (cerebral palsy) who needed others to do things for me. They also had no idea how to provide an accessible foster home and I ended up in a lot of group homes.
The system they call the “social safety net” can be, for some, a social safety trap. The system works to create a sense of security, yet when some people try to break away from it, a lingering negative voice in their head tells them they will never make it. I wanted more for myself, but I didn't know what that was at the time.
Fitting in was never easy for me; I don't know if it may have been because I was a kid who came from so many different families or whether it was because I was also LGBTQ. During this time, I remember praying to God from early on asking that He let me be just one thing or the other; I didn’t want to be gay and disabled. It was when I accepted both sides of myself that I started to realize I had a deeper purpose and message to share. I decided the best way to spread this message was through the media, so I ventured into the entertainment industry as an actor and stand-up comedian.
But Hollywood has not always portrayed LGBTQ characters or characters with disabilities in a positive light. It’s only in the very current television landscape that we see non-victimized characters with disabilities and non-comic LGBTQ narratives. I often found myself straddling identities as an actor: I was either told to play up my disability or play down my sexual orientation or vice versa.
Eventually, I decided I needed to do something more with my life. I established myself as an advocate working within the disability community to raise a voice for people like me. Working at the Independent Living Centers in California, I helped implement statewide systems change through legislation, along with creating pathways and intersections between disability and LGBTQ communities. I also worked for a Los Angeles law firm as a corporate Americans With Disabilities Act subject matter expert.
When people ask me how I have done so much, my answer is very simple: I made a choice, I never wanted to be a victim, and I never wanted to be seen as less than. It’s this motivation and passion that has moved me forward into the position that I hold now as a policy adviser in the federal government. I guess now some people call it “grit.”
I dislike preaching to people and would rather lead by example to positively influence those that I meet. I have learned from my troubling past to let as much good in as possible and to seek others’ strengths, not exploit their weaknesses. The only times I have truly felt disabled are when I have let negative emotions or mindset get in the way of where I wanted to be. There is no magic pill in life to fix problems, but I believe that everyone has a little bit of magic inside themselves and, if they learn how to use it, they can accomplish great things.
This opportunity to serve as a policy adviser for the Labor Department through ODEP gives me such a sense of accomplishment. I truly believe that everything happens for a reason, and no matter what happens to you in life everyone has a purpose. I hope through my work at ODEP to provide a diverse and dynamic perspective of persons with disabilities that face several intersections in life, and I also hope to become a memorable leader in the disability community.
Andy Arias is a policy adviser in the department’s Office of Disability Employment Policy, where one of his main responsibilities is Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act implementation and guidance.