'Our' Town

Alumna Maria Town is the new White House liaison for disabled Americans

Official White House photo by Pete Souza

As he addressed a gathering in the East Room of the White House in July, President Barack Obama gave a special shout-out to Maria Town 09C, who joined his staff in May as an associate director in the White House’s Office of Public Engagement. (After singling out Town as the “fantastic new disability community liaison,” the president added, “Yay, Maria!” to enthusiastic applause.) In this role, she will focus on incorporating the needs of people with disabilities in administration activities.

Also in the room during the twenty-fifth anniversary celebration of the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act was Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, Emory professor of English, bioethics, and women’s studies, and a renowned disability scholar and activist. The anniversary event was an unforgettable experience for both Garland-Thomson and Town, who had been a student of Garland-Thomson’s at Emory.

“Disability studies integrated across the curriculum in higher education prepares the next generation of leadership, like Maria and many other Emory alumni, to act on disability equity and social justice issues, no matter what their major or interests are,” Garland-Thomson says.

Town, who has cerebral palsy, is a full-time, permanent hire, according to White House officials. Prior to joining the president’s staff, Town worked as an adviser in the US Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy, where she focused on improving employment among young adults with disabilities.

Before moving to Washington to work in public service, Town graduated from Emory with a degree in anthropology. At Emory, Town was a Community and Diversity Fellow in the Office of the Provost where she aided in oversight, policy formulation, program development, and management of the Center for Women, the Office of Disability Services, the Office of University-Community Partnerships, and the Office of Equal Opportunity Programs. She also served as the university-wide Student Government Association president.

Since graduating, Town has returned to campus as a speaker and advocate, most notably as a featured guest during a series of events hosted by the university’s Disability Studies Initiative. 

“You get students in freshman writing seminars who learn about disability studies, and they can then take that information to whatever major they choose—and it could be bioethics, it could be psychology, it could be medicine—and learn to apply it there,” Town says. “So it’s taking your disability studies knowledge that you gain from the liberal arts and humanities and, ultimately, when you become that professional after you’ve graduated, you are aware and your perspective is informed by it.”

That perspective is now informing the work of the White House. To quote the president: Yay, Maria.—P.P.P.

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