As President Barack Obama addressed a gathering in the East Room on July 20, he gave a special shout-out to Maria Town 09C, who joined his staff in May as an associate director in the White House’s Office of Public Engagement. After singling out Town as the “fantastic new disability community liaison,” the president added, “Yay, Maria!” to enthusiastic applause.
This year marks the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the landmark legislation prohibiting discrimination against disabled people. And when the milestone was formally celebrated in Washington this summer, Emory was in the house — as in the White House.
Also present was Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, Emory professor of English, bioethics, and women’s studies, and a renowned disability scholar and activist. The anniversary event was an unforgettable experience for both Garland-Thomson and Town, who had been a student of Garland-Thomson's at Emory.
“There is a link between that important ADA celebration gathering and disability studies at Emory,” Garland-Thomson says. “I taught Maria, mentored her and included her in the larger disability studies community. She now identifies as a disability studies scholar, has a disability culture blog, and participates in Society for Disability Studies conferences yearly. Her leadership profile at Emory led her to a position in the Department of Labor and now in the White House.
"This is how disability studies, integrated across the curriculum in higher education, prepares the next generation of leadership — like Maria and many other Emory alumni — to act on disability equity and social justice issues, no matter what their major or interests," she says.
President Obama talks with Maria Town, disability community liaison, prior to remarks during the Americans with Disabilities Act 25th Anniversary reception. Official White House photo by Pete Souza.
Town, who has cerebral palsy, is a full-time, permanent hire, according to White House officials. In her new role, she will focus on incorporating the needs of people with disabilities in Obama administration activities. It’s notable that she works in close proximity to her Emory classmate and friend Monique Dorsainvil 09C, deputy chief of staff for the Office of Public Engagement and the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs.
Prior joining the president’s staff, Town worked as an adviser in the Labor Department’s Office of Disability Employment Policy, where she focused on improving employment among youth and young adults with disabilities.
“Maria’s track record on bolstering youth with disabilities as they transition into the workforce and her demonstrated skill crafting career development opportunities in classrooms, fostering leadership for young people with disabilities and building opportunities for inclusive volunteerism will serve the existing efforts of the White House on behalf of Americans with disabilities well,” says Rebecca Cokley, executive director of the National Council on Disability, a federal agency that advises the president on disability issues.
Before moving to Washington to work in public service, Town graduated from Emory with a degree in anthropology. At Emory, Town was a Community and Diversity Fellow in the Office of the Provost where she aided in oversight, policy formulation, program development and management of the Center for Women, the Office of Disability Services, the Office of University-Community Partnerships and the Office of Equal Opportunity Programs. She also served as the university-wide Student Government Association president.
Since graduating, Town has returned to campus as a speaker and advocate, most notably as a featured guest during a series of events hosted by the university’s Disability Studies Initiative. In a public conversation led by Garland-Thomson, Town emphasized the importance and impact of including disability scholarship in higher education.
“I think that disability studies has and is playing a role in the policy making process through education generally,” she said. “You get students in freshman writing seminars who learn about disability studies, and they can then take that information to whatever major it is they choose — and it could be bioethics, it could be psychology, it could be medicine — and learn to apply it there.
"So it’s taking your disability studies knowledge that you gain from the liberal arts and humanities and, ultimately, when you become that professional after you’ve graduated, you are aware and your perspective is informed by it," Town said.
That perspective is now informing the work of the White House. In the words of the president: Yay, Maria.