Washington, D.C., June 4 – This past month, the Biden Administration formally nominated Taryn Mackenzie Williams to become the next Assistant Secretary for Disability Employment Policy. On May 27, 2021, the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee met to discuss Williams’ nomination and to consider several other candidates for key political appointments. If confirmed by the Senate, Williams would become the highest-ranking member of the Biden Administration to publicly identified as a person with a disability.
This is welcome news given that the Administration has publicly committed it to hiring diverse political appointees and yet only 3 percent of more than 1,500 candidates self-identify as having a disability.
During the confirmation hearing, United States Senator Patty Murray said that “Williams is an excellent choice for assistant secretary for disability employment policy. Ms. Williams is a champion for people with disabilities, a reputation she has earned through her years of service.” Senator Murray also stated that Williams’s knowledge as an expert and passion as an advocate for people with disabilities are qualities that make her so well suited for the role.
In her confirmation hearing, Williams stated her belief that “everyone, including people with disabilities, should have the opportunity to not just learn and earn, but also to advocate for themselves and fully participate in all aspects of community life.” In this position, Williams will be able to help make this belief become a reality by working alongside Jennifer Sheehy and the other members of the Office of Disability Employment Policy to develop and influence policies and practices that increase the number and quality of employment opportunities for people with disabilities.
Before her appointment, Williams received a Bachelor’s degree from Brown University in public policy and a Master’s degree from Harvard in education with a focus on administration and social policy. After completing her education, Williams gained a wealth of experience working with nonprofits, government administrations, and a variety of other parts of the public sector. Most recently, she has served as the Managing Director of the Poverty to Prosperity Program at the Center for American Progress. Prior to this position, Williams also worked as the Chief of Staff for the Office of Disability Employment Policy, Associate Director of Public Engagement and liaison to the disability community for the White House, and a Policy Advisor at the U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. This experience will help Williams thrive in her new role with the Office of Disability Employment Policy.
In addition to helping ODEP function at a more optimal level, this confirmation would also be extremely impactful because Taryn Mackenzie Williams has lived experience as an individual with a disability. Specifically, Williams has lived with ulcerative colitis since the age of 5. In her confirmation hearing, Williams stated “I know firsthand how challenging it can be to work as a person with a disability and to wonder whether my request for accommodations will be accepted or knowledge of my disability will cause others to question if I am suited for a job.” Her past experience as a worker with a disability will be essential to ensuring that the disability community will be included in all high-level policy discussions.
Since COVID 19 hit workers with disabilities harder than individuals without disabilities, Williams is coming into this position at a very important time. In fact, she recently stated that “the pandemic has had a devastating impact on people with disabilities, and we need to continue to prioritize the needs of people with disabilities in our economic recovery efforts.”
Additionally, in her confirmation hearing, Williams also revealed that she believes the knowledge surrounding flexible work schedules, accommodations, assistive technology and online working environments that were gained from working throughout the COVID 19 pandemic has given the public the understanding to be able to create a more inclusive workforce for people with disabilities.
This is welcome news for the more than 1 million workers with disabilities who have lost their jobs due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Senate will soon vote on whether to confirm Williams to lead ODEP. In the meantime, ODEP recently released a summary detailing the priorities, policies, and programs that they have implemented since the start of the Biden-Harris Administration. These include multiple online dialogues to solicit stakeholder feedback, new research on the benefits of telework and resources to support the mental health of workers. For more details on Department of Labor efforts around disability employment, please visit the ODEP website.