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Jessica Doonan

2019 EXTRAordinary Woman

Three years into her Chief of Staff position, Jessica Doonan has found an amazing amount of overlap between her job with the Mayor's Commission for Persons with Disabilities and her life-long connection to the theater arts. In both realms, she assumes the role of stage manager. “Here in the Commission,” she explains, “the hours are a bit different and I don't deal with costumes or paint any sets. But in both worlds, success follows the credo that my high school drama teacher taught me: the play is the thing.”

The “play” is a web of programs and initiatives designed to enhance opportunities for people with disabilities. The aim of the seven-member team at the Mayor's Commission for Persons with Disabilities is to ensure full and equal participation in all aspects of life for all Bostonians. They identify and address architectural, procedural, attitudinal, and communication barriers and promote equity in housing, education, employment, transportation, and civic activities. By upholding the intentions of Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Jessica's staff advocates for access, inclusion, respect, and human dignity for constituents with disabilities. This includes individuals and families, as well as whole communities. 

Realizing these goals requires an inclusion lens so everyone, regardless of job title and responsibility, drives the mission of a fully accessible Boston. In other words, Jessica explains, “We're trying to use the best practices of universal design to make Boston the best possible stage for successful living, addressing the needs of those who are struggling and making things even better for those who are thriving.”

This can include:

  • adding more accessible parking spaces;
  • delivering emergency announcements in American Sign Language (ASL);
  • making sure that sidewalks and public facilities remain accessible;
  • developing compliance standards for accessible housing;
  • hosting free annual events like ADA Celebration Day, Disability Community Forum, Mentoring Day, and the ReFrame Disability Film Series;
  • bringing disability issues front and center at City Council sessions;
  • adding Wheelchair Accessible Vehicles (WAVs) to the city's fleet of taxis;
  • including a disability self-identification to the annual City Census;
  • making sure that private organizations create required accommodations for service animals;
  • and more. 

In fact, the number and depth of the programs listed in the Commission's Annual Report is staggering. So is the need, Jessica emphasizes. "The disability community is vital and vibrant,” she explains. “We're constantly looking at different city policies and procedures and reaching out to ensure that the goals of accessibility and inclusion are being met in ways that everyone feels good about.”

By far, her favorite initiative, the one that most closely reflects her stage management disposition, is the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program. This is Jessica's pride and joy, a fun, empowering, multi-day event that directly impacts quality of life for persons who are Deaf or hard of hearing. Tax preparation is complex enough without the additional barriers of misinformation and misinterpretation. Working with the Mayor's Office of Financial Empowerment, Deaf, Inc., and the National Disability Institute, the Commission brings together an army of tax preparers, Certified Deaf Interpreters and American Sign Language interpreters to provide clarity and support through the tax filing process. These services are offered for free and have inspired other programs, such as financial and retirement planning workshops for members of the Deaf community.  In fact, members of the Deaf community, as well as many other members of other disability communities, sit on the Commission's Advisory Board, ensuring that the Commission's work remains responsive, relevant, and respectful.

The Commission's agenda also includes leadership on basic communication. Jessica credits Commissioner Kristen McCosh for guiding other city departments to use language that elevates inclusion and eschews stereotypes. For example, Jessica points out, “we train people not to use the term ‘handicap,’ even if this word is widely written into the law. We refer to ‘a person with a disability,’ not a ‘disabled person’ and we definitely avoid tropes like ‘inspirational’ and ‘brave.’ We focus on a positive social model, not a medical or pity model.”

As she works to expand access as a basic human right, Jessica focuses on making sure that the environment is adapting, as opposed to forcing people to adapt to the environment. This is a lesson that she learned as a child. Jessica's mother was the secretary for the Special Education Department in the Hamilton School District. Jessica grew up hearing about individualized education programs (IEP) and the connection between policy and the lived experiences of students with disabilities and their families. She is also the proud protective older sister of a younger brother whom she witnessed go through public school with an IEP. 

Not surprisingly, both siblings followed their parents into the “family business” of theater, with Jessica earning her degree at Northeastern University in Theater and American Sign Language. She volunteered using her ASL skills at VSA Massachusetts, a nonprofit promoting participation in the arts for people of all abilities, and continues to volunteer as an access guide at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. As the Assistant to the President of the National Braille Press for three years before coming to the Commission, she advocated for inclusive educational opportunities for blind students. Jessica recently completed her Master's Degree in Global Inclusion and Social Development at the University of Massachusetts Boston, focusing on Human Rights and Disability.

As part of her final capstone project, she had an opportunity to take the Commission’s model for municipal-level disability access to the international stage. Thanks to the American Council Professional Fellows program, she conducted training workshops in Chisinau, Moldova. “What an amazing experience,” Jessica recalls. “We presented the work we do here at the Commission, how we encourage participation by the broadest possible disability constituency, how our programs can be scaled and tailored, and what it means for a modern city to truly value inclusion.”

At home in Boston, Jessica's stage is set for further accessibility inroads. Boston may be an old city, she states, “but there's a real appetite here for innovation, for exceeding standards.” The play must go on and get better for all.