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President Trump's Chance to Prove He Really Cares About Disabled Americans

  • Published: 2017-01-23 (Revised/Updated 2017-06-23) : Author: Rafael Lemaitre - Former Director of Public Affairs for the Federal Emergency Management Agency under President Obama. : Contact: Twitter - @ItsRafLemaitre
  • Synopsis: Op-ed on President Trump and disabilities by former Obama Administration appointee, who served as Director of Public Affairs for FEMA and several White House and DHS posts.

Quote: "Mr. Trump should also use the bully pulpit of the Presidency to state for the record what he claims he already believes: that disabled Americans are not second class citizens and have equal stature in this nation."

Main Document

Serge Kovaleski probably doesn't remember me.

In the late nineties and 2000's I was cutting my teeth at the White House Drug Policy Office as a young press flack for the President's Drug Czar. During that time I would travel frequently to Latin America, where Serge would often be. At the time, Serge was a seasoned correspondent for The Washington Post. I served as source for him and a connection to senior administration officials working on a large anti-drug aid package for Colombia.

Kovaleski's reputation preceded him. My bosses at the White House made it known to me that Serge was influential, smart, and someone we would be wise to engage with to make a public case about our national security policy in the Americas. It wasn't until I had a brief in-person encounter with Serge during one of our official missions to Colombia that I had any inkling he was disabled.

Even today, Serge isn't someone I think of as disabled. In my mind, Serge has always been an investigative journalist for one of the most influential news organizations in the world. As someone just starting my career in public affairs, I felt fortunate to have had even just a brief chance to work with him directly. Kovaleski's reporting didn't often make us look great, but it was always fair, accurate and important. That's why I - like so many other reasonable Americans - felt such disgust when President Trump mocked him on the campaign trail last year.

President Trump, in typical fashion, disputes he ever did what he did:

As President, Mr. Trump now has a chance to prove all of us wrong. President Trump can demonstrate that he values the contributions of all Americans by appointing disabled Americans to senior positions in his Administration.

It shouldn't be hard. After all, almost 20 percent of Americans - 53 million adults - have a disability, according to the CDC. And just like every other demographic in America, they represent diverse and wide-ranging political views. I'm sure some of them agree with the President on his policy agenda. Seeking them out and appointing them would send a strong signal that he understands Americans with disabilities are just as able as anyone else to contribute to his vision. (If anyone on his team happens to read this, here's a helpful guide of all the open slots for appointees, including several now vacant positions I previously held in the Obama Administration).

But that's not enough. Mr. Trump should also use the bully pulpit of the Presidency to state for the record what he claims he already believes: that disabled Americans are not second class citizens and have equal stature in this nation.

It shouldn't be hard. For Mr. Trump, talk comes easy. And if it's an easier pill to swallow, he can comfort himself knowing that it was Republican President George H.W. Bush who signed the Americans with Disabilities Act into law in 1990. And he did it with the needs of workers in mind. Here's what President Bush told the business community upon signing the law:

"You've called for new sources of workers. Well, many of our fellow citizens with disabilities are unemployed. They want to work, and they can work, and this is a tremendous pool of people. And remember, this is a tremendous pool of people who will bring to jobs diversity, loyalty, proven low turnover rate, and only one request: the chance to prove themselves. And when you add together Federal, State, local, and private funds, it costs almost $200 billion annually to support Americans with disabilities - in effect, to keep them dependent. Well, when given the opportunity to be independent, they will move proudly into the economic mainstream of American life, and that's what this legislation is all about."

My career has benefited tremendously from working side-by-side with qualified, energetic federal employees and reporters with disabilities. Over the past eight years, President Obama led by example, by putting in place a wide array of talented public servants with disabilities at the White House and beyond. Even the White House receptionist - the first person visitors see upon entering the West Wing - had a disability. This type of leadership cascades down and makes a difference.

When I served as Director of Public Affairs at FEMA, I witnessed Administrator Craig Fugate forcefully demand that temporary facilities the agency opens to support survivors after disasters be ADA accessible. Fugate also elevated FEMA's Office of Disability and Integration at the agency, making sure it reported to him directly. At DHS, we even had the option to have our business cards printed in braille.

The next few months provides President Trump with a unique opportunity to demonstrate he really does care about the 1 in 5 Americans who have disabilities. The service that disabled Americans are able to provide our nation as public servants is part of what already makes America Great. We'll be watching.

Rafael Lemaitre - Former Director of Public Affairs for the Federal Emergency Management Agency under President Obama.


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