President and CEO of the American Association of People with Disabilities
It’s not a stretch to think that an Anthropology major who grew up in Louisiana, attended Emory University in Atlanta, served in the Obama Administration, and happens to have a disability, would one day be the President and CEO of The American Association of People with Disabilities, especially when you’re Maria Town!
It is true. Once you get to know this 30-something, confident, bright, witty, thoughtful, advocate and self-advocate who was born with cerebral palsy, you just know she is going places. And she has already accomplished some impressive things.
Growing up in a mostly inaccessible home in a family that had an inaccessible vehicle and going to inaccessible schools presented many challenges for Maria. Climbing stairs and finding alternate ways to get to where she needed to be in buildings built before the Americans with Disabilities Act was in place was a daily ritual. But she was determined to get her education. The lack of equal access did not deter her.
But Maria’s story while she went to school is a little different than those you may have heard before. Thanks to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), her experience in school was much easier than it was for many of her peers. She benefitted from an inclusive education where programs and policies were already in place to accommodate her needs. But that is not always the case for all students who are left behind and overlooked. Knowing and experiencing those differences in the education system helped Maria to develop her self-advocacy skills and learn her rights so that she could ask for the necessary accommodations when she entered college.
Maria attended school and participated in activities like every other student did, including speech and debate. It was here that Maria discovered her “ah ha” moment. She was given an assignment to write a speech about her disability and while writing it she realized that her disability provided her with a unique and valuable perspective in order to use her skills as a public speaker to advocate on disability issues. And, according to Maria, “What I didn’t realize at the time was that I’d been advocating for inclusion most of my life. I didn’t think of it that way, I was just trying to do the same things as my peers.” Little did she know it at the time, but she was also honing her skills to become a leader in the disability space.
After college, she worked as a receptionist for a personal injury attorney who was very particular with the way he expected work to be done so it was here that she gained her confidence to ask very specific questions. This was an attribute that would serve her well later in life.
Maria also worked in government helped to pave the way for being recognized as a disability advocate and leader. She was a policy advisor for the US Department of Labor’s (DOL), Office of Disability Employment Policy. Her focus was on youth employment which enabled her to better understand issues facing the disability community. During her time with the DOL, she started a blog focused on the intersection of fashion, tech, and disability, called “CP Shoes.” It was through her work at the DOL and this blog that she expanded her network in the disability community and strengthened her expertise on a range of issues.
One could say her first “big” entrée into a highly visible leadership role in the disability community came when an opportunity opened in the Obama Administration. At the end of her detail to work on disability issues for the White House, colleague and friend, Taryn Williams, asked Maria if she would be interested in applying for the role. Maria remembers thinking that she could do very well in that role, but perhaps it was not her time. “Shocked” that Taryn felt she was qualified; Maria interviewed and was eventually selected!
Perhaps the best part of the job for Maria was that she was never bored – each day brought its own set of challenges and priorities and kept her busy and interested. Key to the role was keeping President Obama and his senior advisors informed on critical issues facing the disability community and that they understood what they could do to address them. She also had to make sure the disability community understood the President’s priorities as well as understand the community’s reaction and concerns to his priorities. It was important that the disability community not only be invited to events at the White House but also host disability-centered events.
After the 2016 election, she was told that the Mayor of Houston was looking for a new disability director and was asked if she was interested. She had doubts. She was not sure about moving to Texas after building her life in D.C., but she traveled to Houston and met with Sylvester Turner. She was so impressed with his ideas and plans for the role that she applied and was selected for the role. While in Houston, Maria was key in the response to Hurricane Harvey and built out a program that replaced thousands of pieces of durable medical equipment that had been lost to flood waters. Maria was also instrumental in mobilizing city resources to accelerate progress on sidewalk repairs and integrating the needs of pedestrians with disabilities into city planning efforts.
Three years later after moving to Texas, Maria was made aware of the leadership role at The American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD) – President and CEO. She was encouraged by disability leaders to consider applying for the role and admittedly would love the chance to get back to bustling D.C. But more than just getting back to D.C., she respected what AAPD stood for and that it is, in fact, a human rights organization.
After a lengthy and informative interview process Maria was selected in the summer of 2019 to fill the role of President and CEO of AAPD! She hit the ground running and has never looked back. She’s hired staff to fill key roles, led them to be key influencers in disability facing policy decisions on the Hill, guided the organization with the support of her Board of Directors to new partnerships and high levels of fundraising, and managed the organization to a surplus budget. Not bad for a little more than one year on the job!
AAPD is a leading disability rights organization in many ways, but perhaps one of the most notable is that it is not only led by someone with a disability, but it’s a cross-disability organization with representation from disability-serving organizations serving on its Board of Directors. Having such representation positions AAPD at the forefront of shaping the narrative for the rights of people with disabilities. Maria was raised in a family called to service, maybe even destined to serve. Both of her grandmothers were involved in volunteer service, her mother is a nurse, and her dad is a criminal defense attorney.
She was never held to a different standard, despite her disability, and was expected to do all the typical things the rest of her family did. She was, however, expected to “do good in the world”. There is no argument here. Maria, you have made your parents and the disability community immensely proud!
For more information about The American Association of People with Disabilities, visit: