This spring, the Committee on Ways and Means had the privilege of hosting David Egan, a Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Foundation Public Policy Fellow. David is the first person with an intellectual disability to ever be awarded a Kennedy Fellowship. For the past few months, David has worked with the staff of the Social Security Subcommittee, where he has been an indispensable part of the team and has made valuable contributions to the work the Subcommittee has done. In honor of David’s last day with the Committee, below is a blog post written by David introducing himself and talking about his goals and aspirations for individuals with disabilities.
I am honored to have been selected as the first Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Fellow with an intellectual disability. The Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Foundation has had fellows for the past 20 years work on the Hill, a government entity, or a non-profit to learn how policy is made in Washington, D.C. In my case, I am working with Chairman Paul Ryan, Social Security Subcommittee Chairman Sam Johnson, and the staff of the Ways and Means Committee. I hope to carry on Eunice Kennedy Shriver’s and the Kennedy and Shriver families’ legacy of supporting and enriching the lives of those with intellectual disabilities. Eunice Kennedy Shriver believed in people, and she wanted a better life for individuals with intellectual disabilities like her sister Rosemary. That is what she told Special Olympics athletes at the World Games in Indiana: “The right to play on any playing field, you have earned it. The right to study in any school, you have earned it. The right to hold a job, you have earned it. The right to be anyone’s neighbor, you have earned it.” These are messages of civil rights, human dignity, respect, and inclusion. Her vision changed the way the world would perceive us.
My role as a fellow is to extend that vision—to do all I can to help inform the legislative process and be the voice for people with intellectual disabilities. Many others before me have walked the halls of Congress, influenced legislation, and made changes to the way people think of us, opening new avenues for people with intellectual disabilities to have a better life. We have fundamental rights to vote, to express our opinions, to make decisions, to be in charge of our lives, and to advocate for those who cannot speak for themselves—sharing in the same rights as any other citizen.
My assignment as a fellow is to work with the Committee on Ways and Means Social Security Subcommittee, which has jurisdiction over benefits and supports for people with disabilities. This is a new work environment for me and a worthwhile challenge. Before coming to the Ways and Means Committee, I worked as a clerk in the Distribution Center at Booz Allen Hamilton in Tysons, McLean, VA for almost 20 years. My current job is quite different, and my goal is to learn as much as I can about policy and legislation in Congress and support the committee to the best of my abilities.
My first day on the job in February 2015 was delayed by a snowstorm, and it was a tough commute, with Metro delays and cold weather for the first two weeks. In contrast, the welcoming attitude of the staff has been warm and inclusive. My fellowship is a great learning experience. I have great mentors who inspire me and include me in meetings. I share with them my views and engage in discussions. I am a reminder to those around me on the Hill that people with intellectual disabilities do not have to hide and are a part of the community.
My dream has always been to do something special for those of us with intellectual disabilities. As President Kennedy said, “Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.” I see my new role as a Kennedy fellow as part of what I can do.
I want to make sure that individuals with intellectual disabilities are not forgotten. The needs of people in the intellectual-disability community have not yet been fully addressed. I take pride in having had a job for so many years. However, many like me with Down syndrome or other intellectual disabilities would like to have a competitive job and be fully integrated into the company and environment where they work. Unfortunately, the numbers of individuals with intellectual disabilities who are employed is too low.
On March 2, 2011, I had the privilege to testify at the Senate Health Education Labor and Pension (HELP) Committee on examining and improving employment opportunities for people with intellectual disabilities chaired at that time by currently retired Senator Tom Harkin. (You can read my testimony on the Senate website).
I’ve already attended a hearing on Social Security and its impact on people with disabilities. In fact, at a Ways and Means Social Security Subcommittee hearing on February 25, 2015, Subcommittee Chairman Sam Johnson put forth a set of principles that form a commitment to addressing the Disability Insurance trust fund shortfall. Chairman Johnson will use these principles, supported by Chairman Paul Ryan, to guide policy solutions for the Congress. As Chairman Johnson said during his opening remarks, “This is a commonsense commitment to all Americans.”
People with intellectual disabilities do not want pity; we want respect, inclusion, and the opportunity to reach our full potential like any other citizen. I would like to acknowledge those who guided and supported me to open new paths for people with intellectual disabilities. My fellowship would have not been possible without the help of the many people who took me seriously early on in my life: my family, friends, teachers, and mentors. They all believed in me and taught me to be self-sufficient and independent.
I am dedicated to supporting the Ways and Means Committee with the attitude and resolve that Eunice Shriver had. I want to cut through partisanship and to find ways for people like me to be contributing members of our society. I hope that I am a reminder on the Hill that people with intellectual disabilities matter and can contribute.
By David Egan – Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Foundation Fellow – May 2015