The Obama White House has a new person in the job to oversee its efforts on disability issues. Claudia Gordon, who has Jamaican roots, moves over from the Dept of Labor where she dealt with potential discrimination by federal contractors to now work between the Obama administration and the disability community as the White House’s disability liaison.
Her new title is associate director in the White House Office of Public Engagement. The discrimination Gordon experienced as a deaf child in Jamaica compelled her to become a lawyer. Her family moved to the U.S. when she was a child. She attended New York’s Lexington School for the Deaf where she learned sign language and later became the first deaf student to graduate from the American University’s Washington College of Law. Gordon has worked for the National Association of the Deaf Law and Advocacy Center as well as the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
Growing up, who were your role models?
My mother was my most influential role model. She was a woman of profound faith and perseverance up until the very day she lost her six year battle with ovarian cancer in 2000. Growing up, I witnessed her hard work and sacrifices as she struggled to raise my two siblings and me, all on her own, deep in the rural countryside of Jamaica, W.I. A domestic servant with only an eighth grade education, she literally scrubbed her way to America one garment at a time. When she immigrated to America — the South Bronx — she kept right on working to ensure that within a few years she would be reunited with her three children, whom she had left in the care of her eldest sister, my aunt Mildred Taylor. My mother taught me that we all control our own destiny and should never become victims of our circumstances. She taught me about the unbelievable power of faith and love.
My aunt Mildred was also a very important role model, along with my grandmother Viola Parsons. In truth, I was raised by a community of women. They were always in the background pitching in whenever my Mom was in need. Despite all the hardships, they created a positive environment in which all of us children could be properly nourished with a sense of responsibility, dignity and pride. My aunt Mildred is a teacher, and as such she instilled in us the importance of a good education. At the age of 74, she is still teaching today.
There are scores of other individuals I could name because behind every successful person are plenty of people: role models, mentors, colleagues, friends and family members. No one gets here by him or herself so I am grateful to a lot of people.
How did you become interested in working for the Federal government?
My interest in working for the Federal government was sparked while working as a Skadden Fellow and staff attorney at the National Association of the Deaf (NAD) Law and Advocacy Center from 2000-2002. The NAD operates on a shoe-string budget and the law center staff fluctuates from two to four full time attorneys working tirelessly to keep pace with incoming discrimination claims and requests for technical assistance from among the 36 million deaf and hard of hearing individuals in America. It was there that I confronted the truth that passing legislation is one thing but actual implementation with enforcement is another. I felt that a job with the Federal government would more effectively allow me to affect the actual enforcement of laws such as the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, thereby alleviating the blatant discrimination that people with disabilities continue to face.
What inspired you to pursue your field of interest?
When I suddenly lost my ability to hear at the age of eight, I was taken out of school and kept at home to perform chores. Friends slowly disappeared and what was usually a cheerful hello was replaced by an awkward smile, curious stares and even outright ridicule. There were also those long road trips on the bumpy Jamaican roads to distant towns where healers would perform rituals in attempts to cure me. I thought I was the only deaf person in the world. I did not realize until years later that a woman who everyone in my town knew as “dummy,” and who children my age would incessantly harass with stone throwing, was deaf. Looking back, I wish I knew her real name. What I do know is that the life of this woman – ostracized as “dummy” – almost became my own but for my mother’s triumph in successfully bringing me to America by the time I was eleven years old.
By my junior year in high school, I made it known to all that I would go to law school and become an attorney. Many shrugged off my grand intention as wishful thinking. Some cited my deafness as an obstacle rendering it impractical if not impossible to pursue a law degree. Thanks to the values that were instilled in me during my formative years, I understood then that those voices of doubt neither dictated my worth nor my capacity. I want to contribute to a better society where there is more understanding and acceptance of people with disabilities and where the same opportunities are provided for all.
What keeps you motivated?
I am motivated by knowing that although progress is being made towards inclusion and access, there is still a great deal more work to be done. Also, mentoring youth and young adults with disabilities keeps me motivated. I have an innate desire to give back. It is uplifting when you are able to empower another and help someone discover a sense of self-worth and confidence in his or her abilities.