White House Wheels

Early one morning Jonathan Young sat contemplating his position. This man who started out as a wrestler at Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, Maryland came to the conclusion that he wasn't at all where he thought he would be. But, he never thought he would be a man with a disability, and never thought that a man with a disability could rise to the position he has achieved. Now, at thirty years old, he sits in a wheelchair, the result of a spinal cord injury while wrestling, with President Clinton on one side and the disabled community on the other.

In 1996 Young was a student at the University of North Carolina (Chapel Hill, NC), a Ph.D. candidate in American History writing his dissertation on the history of the ADA, when an opportunity came his way. He was offered a job at the National Rehabilitation Hospital Resource Center (Washington, DC). “Jerben de Jong asked me to write a history of the ADA based on a contract the research center had with the National Council on Disabilities.” That history became known as a book entitled Equality of Opportunity: The Making of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and was published in 1997).

Through interviews for the book Young became friendly with the movers and shakers in the disabled community. When a position became available to do disability outreach the director of the White House Office of Public Liaison, Minyon Moore, asked for nominations from within the disabled community. Justin Dart nominated Young. He filled the position of Associate Director of Disability Outreach on August 31, 1998.

The Office of Public Liaison is set up to be a conduit between the White House, the president and various constituency groups. The Office allows for communication to flow easily between these constituency groups and the policy makers. While it isn't a policy office per se, it does work closely with other offices of the White House, coordinating policy issues with issues relevant to the various constituency groups.

Until Young took his position the Office had never had anyone focusing their attention directly and specifically on disability issues. Young’s predecessor, Bill White, was doing senior and disability together. Furthermore, Young is the first person with a disability to be serving in this capacity. He’s spent a lot of time talking with the disabled community in order to establish his priorities. He has also spent time trying to merge those priorities with the president’s priorities. “It is difficult to diverge the president from his current priorities and easier to merge constituency priorities with his. I try to learn what issues the disabled community is focusing on and merge those with the general priorities of the administration.”

Over the past year Young has be able to get a a great deal accomplished because of his ability to see the disability angle in many issues. A perfect example is social security. Most people think of social security as a retirement program, but it’s more than that if you look at who is receiving benefits. Fully one third of the beneficiaries are on SSDI and the survivors program. Another example is long term care for the elderly or disabled. “One of the things we had in our budget this year was a $1000 tax credit for people who are receiving long term services or those who are providing care for a dependent child or an elderly parent.”

On the whole Young is proud of his accomplishments and those of his office. When he’s asked about major changes he says it is difficult to see those kinds of changes in the short time he has been in office. But, he feels he has made a dent and he hopes future administrations will continue the work he’s begun. He hopes people understand that legislation like the ADA is just a beginning. The future, he says, looks bright. “The ADA was legislation for the next generation. It wasn't designed to have an immediate impact, though it has. As time goes on society is increasingly accessible. America in 2030 is going to look drastically different.”

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