Jennifer Sheehy: Working for Change

By Janine Bertram Kemp

Photo by Tom Olin

Jennifer Sheehy looks as if she just rolled out of a makeover at Elizabeth Arden: makeup perfect, every hair in place. But there’s a core of capability under her preppie-girl veneer. Sheehy is one of the nation’s top experts on employment of people with disabilities, having served as senior policy advisor at the U.S. Department of Labor in the Presidential Task Force on Employment of Adults with Disabilities from January 2000 until August of this year. During that period she temporarily changed hats, taking on a nine-month detail as an advisor to the Domestic Policy Council in the executive office of the Bush administration. Simultaneously studied and casual, she projects power but tempers it with a subtle sense of humor. And her smile is disarming in Washington, D.C.–mostly because it’s real.

That smile might have abandoned her as a result of what happened on the weekend of July 4, 1994. “I was at a pool and fell in backwards at the shallow end. I was conscious of being under the water and knew I could not move. My date at the time brought my head above water and kept me in the pool until paramedics arrived,” she says.

She had graduated from Cornell University in 1984, had been marketing manager for the largest hotel in Washington, D.C., was working on her master’s in business administration and had recently landed a prestigious internship with Anheuser-Busch in St. Louis. Now she was paralyzed at the C5-6 level. Ironically, she had also worked for Alan Reich, SCI survivor and CEO of the National Organization on Disability, having been recruited by Ginny Thornburgh, a family friend, to work on an NOD fundraising event.

“I never want to forget what it was like as a nondisabled person to work for Alan,” says Sheehy. “It reminds me how great the fear is when people know nothing of disability. I was terrified I would do or say something wrong. During those six months at NOD. I went from being afraid to be alone in the room with Alan because he might fall out of his wheelchair and I would not know what to do, to having great respect for an accomplished executive.”

Looking back, Sheehy sees the silver lining. “What kismet that prior to my injury I had worked for Alan,” she says. “He has the exact same level of injury as I do and he got it at 32, the same age my injury occurred. What a role model! He keeps three assistants running and connects with more people in a day than two executives. … He never quits working.”

Ginny Thornburgh also had a seminal impact on Jennifer after her accident. Ginny is director of religion and disability at NOD. She’s also the wife of Dick Thornburgh, a champion of the ADA who was attorney general during the first (elder) Bush Administration.

“She has given me advice on everything from underwear to politics and it’s all been good,” says Sheehy. “Two weeks after my injury, she was at my bedside listing for me all the wonderful things about being disabled. To say I was incredulous is an understatement. I thought she was crazy. But in retrospect, she was right about most everything.”

A Family Adjusts
After her accident, Sheehy’s parents, brother, and two sisters gathered around her. She credits them with keeping depression at bay, although she worked hard to keep her focus outward rather than fall prey to doubt and self-pity. She was concerned about getting her family through the trauma of her injury, perhaps because she’s the oldest sibling and used to shouldering responsibility. The “life’s not worth living if I can’t walk” phase often experienced by those with a new SCI was not allowed to worm its way into her recovery.

Yet adjustments were hard and so was the impact on her family. “When I decided to return to graduate school, my sister Erin put her life on hold to assist me,” says Sheehy. “The stress was hard on her, so the family discussed it and set an end date for her providing my care.” But Sheehy brushes off suggestions that her family was uncommonly wise in doing this. “We’re dysfunctional like everyone else,” she laughs. “We didn’t talk about it until it became a problem.”

Erin speaks of that early stress: “It was draining emotionally and physically. Everything that used to be simple took two hours. It was hard to see others’ reactions to Jenn–the discrimination, the paternalism. Jennifer’s accident made us more honest and certainly closer. As a family, we’d dealt with outside pressures but never what we were doing to each other.”

Sheehy believes her parents gave her the best of both worlds in essential character qualities. Her father was an attorney and her mother ran the Source Theatre in McClean, Va., an upscale bedroom community near D.C. She says she gets her rational side from her father and her creative and artistic side from her mother.

“I was raised to keep trying, to have a goal and go after it. I had two parents who worked hard in some very tough situations, and it helped,” she says.

Sheehy puts great stock in role models. She herself excels in that department. Advice for the newly disabled rolls off her tongue: “Paralysis is not sexy, but confidence is. Throw modesty out the window, set goals and follow through, be sad when you need to, but then move on. … And express gratitude frequently. For you to live your life and accomplish things, others will have to get and do things for you. Let them know you appreciate it.”

It sounds easy, especially the part about throwing modesty out the window. But she still lists having to be bathed, dressed, etc., as among the things she hates. It’s hard to endure having it done and it’s not easy managing attendants. Still, she has kept the same attendant for the duration of her injury, in part because she’s careful to express regular appreciation and pay the best wage she can afford.

Employment the Key
Sheehy lives in a Cleveland Park condominium–in one of D.C.’s better neighborhoods–with Bianca, her cream-colored toy poodle, having put a prior marriage behind her. The condo’s décor is understated and comfortable but of high quality. When talking with her, you get the impression that something doesn’t fit. Then you realize the source of the discord is your own tendency toward stereotyping. Women like her –drop dead gorgeous and dressed to the nines–are supposed to be superficial and phony. But Sheehy is as real and unpretentious as they come.

“Jennifer is a funny juxtaposition of a lot of different things,” says Erin, a New York attorney. “She’s got grit, she’s bright, she cares about some core things very deeply, and yet she always wants her mascara nearby.”

Photo by John Harrington

She is also a high achiever who has earned a reputation as a competent, hard-working expert with phenomenal follow-through. But beware, she has little patience with the Washington types “who lie and backstab to get ahead because they are too jealous and incompetent to do it on their own,” she says.

Sheehy knows the corporate world. She’s worked with a myriad of companies. Wray Callahan, a human resource specialist with Boeing, met Sheehy when they served on an employers’ task force. “Jennifer is extremely intelligent. I’ve worked with a lot of people and I’ve never seen one with a happier sense of being,” he says. “I’ve always had a program of actively recruiting and hiring disabled people–because they can do the job. But I’ve had to educate a lot of supervisors who have a preconceived notion that being disabled means you can’t. Jennifer’s a great disability ambassador to the corporate world. You see her and it makes you want to do more.”

As a government leader and disability advocate, her policy ideas and facts are multilayered and well-organized. She begins with broad-based strokes that define the topic, usually with a positive spin. “Employment,” she says, “is key to living life with a disability. Even if you don’t start out making financial headway because you lose some of your government benefits, it’s better to have a job for the challenges and the social context. It’s not only the money. You also feel better about yourself and you’re valued more. It’s a reason to get up in the morning.”

Although positively focused, she’s forceful about debunking myths concerning disability and employment. For example, employer fear of ADA-based lawsuits is often cited as the reason employers hesitate to hire people with disabilities. But Sheehy refutes that: “The Society for Human Resource Management did a study showing that the number of employees with disabilities who file litigation is negligible,” she says.

Sheehy sees the number one priority for social employment policy as two-pronged. First, prepare mainstream employment and training services to better serve people with disabilities. Then provide these programs with assistive technology education.

“Employers have limited time and resources,” she says. “They won’t go to a separate agency for disability employment. So employers and job seekers with disabilities need to find each other through local One-Stops [the Department of Labor has One-Stop career centers in all 50 states]. Then, in order to serve job seekers with disabilities, those who work in the mainstream services must understand appropriate assistive technology and know the programs available to obtain it.” She also cites as priorities the need to support the Ticket to Work program and promote federal hiring of people with disabilities.

But the real need is in the private sector. “As a general rule we cannot forget to involve employers at the table when developing and implementing policy,” she says. She believes the federal government should conduct CEO-driven marketing and outreach campaigns to promote hiring of people with disabilities. The bottom line, she says, is the attitude of a company’s CEO–the number one deciding factor in whether that company hires employees with disabilities.

Moving On
As advisor to the Domestic Policy Council in the executive office of the president, Sheehy was a good fit in the Bush White House. The president has placed priority on programs for people with disabilities through his New Freedom Initiative and Sheehy is committed to societal inclusion of disabled people. Also, she’s a Democrat with a conservative streak. She believes government assistance should be designed as a temporary transition whether it is for individuals or businesses. For instance, she considers the bailout of airlines after Sept. 11 as appropriate because it allowed them to once again become self-sufficient. Government disability programs, she believes, should have the same impact. Whether the government is implementing the Olmstead decision, which allows people the choice to live in the community rather than an institution, or eliminating work disincentives, the focus should be structured to transition people with disabilities to self-supporting lifestyles.

She knows that’s easier said than done. “There’s deep societal prejudice against people with disabilities. To gain and keep employment, we have to be more qualified and work three times harder than our nondisabled counterparts.” She does not sugarcoat the reality of living in our society with a disability but neither does she waste any time ranting and railing against the status quo. Her focus is using the bureaucracy for creative change, and she encourages the disability community to hold her accountable. “Make sure we bureaucrats do our job,” she says. “Everyone needs a servant. There are 18,000 public servants in the federal government. Use them,” she implores. “Then significant supports will be in place to facilitate the integration of people with disabilities into the workforce and other aspects of society. There are several employment resources at www.disabilitydirect.gov,” she adds.

Sheehy also believes there’s strength in numbers. She advises people to join advocacy groups like the American Association of Persons with Disabilities, the National Council on Independent Living, and the National Spinal Cord Injury Association.

She encourages people to become involved in recreation, one of her favorite topics. She’s working toward her pilot’s license in glider planes, and she’s been an avid golfer, skier and competitive swimmer. “There’s a real link between recreation and successful employment. It builds confidence and teaches cooperation and teamwork. Several corporations know this. The Hartford has a contract with the disabled employees of Wilderness Adventures. They send the employee, along with his or her supervisor and case manager, on a wilderness experience.”

Now that the Task Force has closed its doors, Sheehy has several career possibility irons in the fire. When asked what her future plans are both personally and professionally, she responds with another of her weighty lists.

“I want to spend time with my family, my boyfriend, friends and Bianca. At some point I’d like to be the executive officer of an agency or corporation.” Oh, and one more small job: “I want to end discrimination toward people with disabilities.”

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