Disabled people belong everywhere and it was exciting to several disabled people appointed to key positions in the Biden administration. Below is an interview with Emily Voorde, a person I became acquainted with online during the 2020 Presidential election. Enjoy!
On #NationalVoterRegistrationDay, the Admin is ensuring Disabled Americans aren’t denied the right to vote:
— Emily Voorde (@shortyvoorde) September 28, 2021
Please introduce yourself and share a little bit about your background!
Thanks, Alice! My name is Emily Voorde and I have the immense honor of serving as the Biden Administration’s liaison to Disabled Americans in the White House Office of Public Engagement. I was born with Osteogenesis Imperfecta and use a wheelchair. Out of college, I taught 2nd grade in a self-contained classroom in Pascagoula, Mississippi. The inequities I witnessed, particularly for my Disabled students and students of color, left me with more questions than answers about our education system. I went on to study Education Policy while working for a non-profit in Nashville, TN. In 2019, I returned to South Bend, Indiana to support my hometown Mayor, now-Secretary, Pete Buttigieg’s run for President. I traveled the Democratic Primary campaign trail in support of Secretary Buttigieg’s husband, Chasten Buttigieg. It wasn’t until Rebecca Cokley, Maria Town, and others reached out to me that I realized that while I certainly wasn’t the only campaign staffer with a visible disability, and certainly not nearly the only with a diagnosis, my role as a full-time, Disabled “Body Woman” in a wheelchair was unprecedented. Much of my work in the White House is ensuring that space is carved out for Disabled voices — in “disability-specific” conversations, of course, but more importantly in spaces across policy issues. It’s long past time that our presence isn’t “unprecedented”, but valued and expected.
Congratulations on your new role in the Biden Administration! What are your main roles and responsibilities as the Associate Director for the White House Office of Public Engagement and what does this office do?
To borrow a line from my colleague Trey Baker, the Office of Public Engagement serves as the “front doors” of the White House. My colleagues and I each have a portfolio of constituencies and identities that we’re tasked with engaging. One aspect of our work involves pushing information out to our stakeholders: updates on policy priorities, talking points, social media messaging, and more. But the other aspect, and the piece that is particularly energizing to me, is the opportunity to lend our platform to everyday, on-the-ground Americans. We solicit input from multiply-marginalized populations through Listening Sessions, we celebrate leadership happening in communities across the countries, we partner with Agencies to ensure that policy reaches stakeholders, we recommend opportunities for the President, First Lady, Vice President, and Second Gentleman to engage with the community in meaningful ways, and more.
Do you think it is important to have a disabled person in a key role at the White House Office of Public Engagement and what do you hope to accomplish during your time there? If so, why?
Most certainly! Doing the work of engagement well necessitates some level of shared schema. Being Disabled in America is front of mind, both personally and professionally.
During my time in the White House, I want to move the needle on normalizing disability. And no, this doesn’t mean “watering down” our community. It means uplifting and affirming chronic illness, learning disabilities, mental health diagnoses, and invisible diagnoses in the same way that we talk about visible disabilities. The path to self-identification takes time. Regardless of whether you’re newly injured, grappling with labels, or you proudly wear your disability on your sleeve, there’s a community ready to welcome you and an Administration ready to fight for you.
An entire pop. of Disabled & Senior Americans is being supported by a workforce that lives below the poverty line.
Another pop. is dying in congregate settings because there aren’t enough caregivers.
This week, we realign our priorities. https://t.co/P57lo68VC6
— Emily Voorde (@shortyvoorde) September 27, 2021
Several Disabled and Deaf people worked at the Office of Public Engagement during the Obama Administration. Before you started your position, did you get a chance to speak to them? What kind of advice did you receive?
I did! I’m fortunate to consider Maria Town, Rebecca Cokley, and Claudia Gordon mentors. Molly Doris-Pierce, who led Disabled engagement on the Biden-Harris campaign, has also been a rock. I had a chance to connect with all four of them before starting this role; they had my back from the beginning, and for that I’m forever grateful. As soon as I was appointed, I hit the ground running and hopped on the phone with as many Disabled leaders and changemakers as I could pin down. The Disabled community had had little to no formal engagement under the previous Administration, so I’d say it was a cathartic, hopeful reset for everyone.
I first started following you on Twitter when I learned that you worked on the Pete Buttigieg campaign during the 2020 Presidential Election. What did you learn from working on a major campaign and from disability communities you interacted with during that time?
I touched on this a bit already, but my biggest takeaway is that our community exists in every nook, cranny, and district of this country. The Disabled experience crosses gender, sexual identity, socio-economic status, race, religion, age, and geography. You don’t have to look a certain way, act a certain way, or use a certain medical equipment to be Disabled. Hell! You don’t even have to self-identify. There’s no single way to “be Disabled”. But if you have a diagnosis, from Crohn’s to Cancer, from Dyslexia to Diabetes, you are part of a community that’s greater than the sum of its parts.
You are one of several well-known disabled people working in the Biden Administration. Do you feel any pressure or discomfort from being so visible and/or under scrutiny to ‘represent’ when it’s impossible to be all things to all people? How do you deal with that?
Honestly, I certainly feel that pressure on some days. My identity and my career are so inextricably linked – and that’s a good thing, overall! But it can make it difficult to set boundaries. I rely heavily on my family and closest friends to keep me tethered to the ground. You’re never going to be everything to everybody. Not giving myself occasional time to roll away and recharge implies that the Good Hard Work of advocacy can’t be done without me. And that’s simply not true. The work is going to be there after that bubble bath or that splurge dinner-out or that weekend with dear friends. I promise you that.
Life on a campaign trail and working in DC can be super stressful. What do you do to take care of yourself as someone with a very demanding job in public service?
My most valuable, non-negotiable self-care practice is carving out time to spend with family and friends, whether in-person or virtually. I promise you – there’s always going to be more work. It’s never going to feel like just the right time to step away for 30 minutes, or a few hours, or the weekend. But you have to make the time. Facetime your best friend while you make dinner. Watch an episode of TV with your sister and mom over Zoom. Take a short road trip with (vaccinated!) friends to visit a part of your state that you’ve never seen. Of course, the realities of COVID continue to limit our face-to-face engagement.
What is your advice for disabled people who see your career and want to get started in political participation or public service?
This might sound like backwards advice, but being a good public servant necessitates that you bring something to the table other than an indiscriminate interest in serving the public. Find what you’re passionate about! Maybe it’s climate change, access to arts in your community, accessible transit in your town, or preservation of a State Park. Maybe it’s linked to your Disabled identity, or maybe it’s simply informed by it. There’s no passion that’s too great or too small. Find others with similar passions, whether via social media or in your community. Once you find your “why,” the rest will follow. And yes! The “why” can evolve.
Emily Voorde was born in South Bend, Indiana. In utero, Emily was diagnosed with Osteogenesis Imperfecta. Since the age of 3, she’s been using a wheelchair to navigate our (albeit often inaccessible) world!
Emily graduated from the University of Notre Dame in 2015 with a degree in political science and minors in constitutional studies and business economics. At Notre Dame, Emily was an independent researcher with the Keough Dublin Summer program, an intern in the office of Mayor Pete Buttigieg, and an intern in Senator Joe Donnelly’s Washington DC office. As an independent researcher, Emily explored barriers to ratification of the UN CRPD in Ireland and in the United States. Following graduation from Notre Dame, Emily participated in a two-year alternative certification program blending full-time teaching in an under-resourced school with Masters of Education graduate coursework at the University of Notre Dame. Emily taught in a second grade self-contained classroom in Pascagoula, Mississippi. In 2017, Emily began a Masters of Public Policy in Education at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College. While in Nashville, Emily worked full time at Instruction Partners, an education non-profit committed to ensuring high-quality, equitable instruction for students in marginalized communities. Upon her graduation from Vanderbilt in May 2019, Emily joined Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s Presidential Campaign, Pete for America, as a Travel Manager. Her role quickly evolved as Chasten Buttigieg, Mayor Pete’s husband, built out his own traveling road team. Emily spent the remainder of the campaign in direct support of Chasten as his Body Woman and Trip Director. In August 2020, Emily joined the University of Notre Dame’s Sara Bea Accessibility Services Team as their Assistant Director for Education and Outreach, supporting students with disabilities through the COVID-19 pandemic.
In May 2021, Emily was appointed to a role in the White House Office of Public Engagement as an Assistant Director and the Administration’s liaison to disabled Americans.
Support Disability Media and Culture
DONATE to the Disability Visibility Project®