“… I grew up with an ethic of service.”
Angela F. Williams is president and CEO of Easterseals in the United States of America. They are the nation’s leading nonprofit provider of life-changing services and powerful advocacy for people with disabilities of all ages, including veterans and seniors. She is the first Black woman to hold this post and was hired in 2018 as a change agent in anticipation of Easterseals’ 100th anniversary in 2020.
As Easterseals moves into its second century, Williams’ goals are to increase its growth, bolster its impact, expand its services, and advance disability equity in health care, education and employment for people with disabilities in society. This vision is being driven by Williams’ network-wide strategic plan to broaden inclusion, empowerment and access for the 1.5 million people Easterseals serves annually—and for the one in four Americans living with disability today. The plan includes strengthening Easterseals’ National Network of 68 affiliates to serve more individuals and families living with disability through expansion of services and heightened support from corporate, foundation and individual donors.
Additionally, Williams’ strategic plan includes a stronger focus on advocacy at the federal and state levels, designed to ensure that people with disabilities have greater access to health care, education and employment opportunities. As part of that effort, through work with public and private entities technology has been elevated as a priority since the virtual world is increasingly the most essential point of access to services and inclusion for people with disabilities.
College: In college I was an advocate for equality and inclusivity
I was born in Anderson, South Carolina, the child of a Baptist Pastor, who later joined the United States Navy when I was 5 years old. My dad served as pastor of Royal Baptist Church in Anderson, South Carolina when he and my mother agreed that he would join the U.S. Navy as the 5th Black chaplain in the history of the United States Navy. That led to uprooting their young family and moving from South Carolina to Southern California. From there, our family moved 13 times.
I earned a bachelor’s degree in American government from the University of Virginia, a Juris Doctor from the University of Texas School of Law and a Master’s of Divinity cum laude from the Samuel DeWitt Proctor School of Theology, Virginia Union University.
In college I worked to increase the number of Black students admitted to the University of Virginia and the hiring more Black professors. I took on this same advocacy role at the University of Texas School of Law. Throughout my life, I’ve had the opportunity to advocate for equal treatment. Certainly, equal treatment of people with disabilities is very much a civil rights issue.
In the United States Air Force: I had the opportunity to serve as an advisor to various military departments
Upon graduation from college, I was sworn in as a 2nd Lieutenant in the United States Air Force, however, the Air Force allowed me to attend law school. After I passed the Virginia bar exam and was sworn in as a lawyer, I came on active duty and was assigned to my first duty station at McConnell Air Force Base as an Assistant Staff Judge Advocate (JAG), the military job title for lawyer. As a JAG, I had the opportunity to serve as an advisor to various military departments, prosecute cases (court-martials) and counsel military members and their families (serving as their personal lawyer). I was honored to serve my country. It gave me an opportunity to be trained and excel in leadership. I appreciated the discipline, camaraderie and relationships that were fostered in the military.
In Washington: I served as a Military Social Aide at the White House under the Clinton Administration.
My last duty station was at the Air Force District of Washington, Bolling Air Force Base where I served as a Circuit Trial Counsel. In this role, I had the responsibility of prosecuting high profile cases at Air Force bases in 13 states and the Republic of Panama.
While in the position, I also served as a Military Social Aide at the White House under the Clinton Administration and provided support to the President and First Lady events held at the White House, from treaty signings, to receptions and state dinners for world leaders to holiday gatherings. After having served on active duty for over 6 years, I joined the U.S. Department of Justice as an Assistant United States Attorney in the Middle District of Florida. From there, I was assigned to a special task force within the Civil Rights Division of DOJ. I was then placed as special council on criminal law for Senator Edward M. Kennedy as part of the Senate Judiciary Committee staff, often interacting with Congressional and White House senior staff.
With all of these opportunities to serve came the responsibility of learning how to interact with leaders and to support them, bringing to bear all of my professional skills. I really had the opportunity to use my legal skills, knowledge of nonprofit law and governance and ministry background, to serve as the Interfaith Liaison for the Bush-Clinton Katrina fund, a fund created shortly after Hurricane Katrina to support the rebuilding of communities affected by the hurricane. This was an important and unique opportunity that was very public and impactful. Both former presidents were given a set number of staff to select to be hired. I was the only person whose name was put forth by both Presidents Bush and Clinton.
YWCA, USA: I worked with the 1000s of YMCAs across the country on key initiatives
At YMCA of the USA, I was the General Counsel and Chief Administration Officer. One of the unique aspects of this job was to oversee a $130M mixed-use construction project in the heart of Jerusalem, Israel. I traveled back and forth for 11 years – spending 3 months out of each year in Israel.
Domestically, I worked with the YMCAs across the country on key initiatives such as implementation of the YMCA Diabetes Prevention Program, articulating their community benefit and shaping the future of an organization focused on youth development, healthy living and social responsibility. This job really prepared me for assuming the leadership role at Easterseals. All of the components of my job and the strategies used at the Y were useful for Easterseals and where it found itself as a 100-year-old legacy organization.
Advocacy: influences early in my life informed every step in my journey to live a life in service to others both personally and professionally
As the daughter of a Baptist pastor, I witnessed my parents’ leadership in the Civil Rights movement and learned at an early age the value of service to affect change in the lives of people who are disenfranchised and in need.
An active member of the military for more than six years, I was an Air Force Judge Advocate General who served in Desert Storm. From there, I worked in the federal government as an Assistant United States Attorney and in the Department of Justice, leveraging these experiences to work on Capitol Hill in the United States Senate on the Senate Judiciary Committee staff.
People are often curious to learn that I am both an attorney and an ordained minister. I have always seen these as different aspects of my life’s purpose – advocacy and bringing hope. As a child of the Civil Rights Movement, I saw religious leaders like my parents leading the charge for equal treatment under the law for Blacks. The notion of “separate but equal” was the law until passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Thirty-eight years later, we find ourselves still wrestling with systems that do not recognize all men and women as having been created equal; no matter what you measure, whether it is educational, financial, health and wellbeing, etc., there is still significant inequality.
The same is true for people with disabilities. It is time for a revival – for us to wake up from the slumber of status quo. I am an advocate for reviving the soul of a nation and its citizens such that righteousness and justice are equally accessed and applied to all!
EASTERSEALS: I was attracted to Easterseals’ vision, mission and purpose – all of which aligned with who I am as a person, working to advocate for others, equity and inclusion.
Here’s what I learned about Easterseals, that is so important not only to me, but to the rest of our nation:
It is driven by vision …. To create a world in which every one of us is 100% included and 100% empowered to reach our full potential.
It is driven by mission ….To expand possibilities for people of all ages and abilities through innovative services and powerful advocacy so they can live, learn, work and play in their communities.
It is driven by purpose … To change the way the world defines and views disability by making profound, positive differences in people’s lives every day.
Serving children with disabilities was the focus of our founding more than 100 years ago. But when WWII veterans began returning home with injuries that our medical rehabilitation services could respond to, we expanded our services to help adults.
At Easterseals, our purpose is to change the way the world defines and views disability, by making profound, positive differences in people’s lives every day. We do that through our Network of 67 Affiliates in communities nationwide. 61 million people in America are living with a disability today, with more than 1 in 4 households in America having a family member that identifies with a disability.
We help young children of all abilities achieve their goals in cognitive, social/emotional, communicative, adaptive and physical development. Our Child Development Center Network is the largest nonprofit provider of inclusive childcare in the United States.
We provide services for young adults transitioning into adulthood including employment training, coaching and placement; transportation; in-home care; and camping and recreation. Additionally, Easterseals’ adult day services, in-home supports and services, community mobility options, wellness programs and support for family caregivers help people live as independently as possible for as long as possible.
Finally, Easterseals specializes in identifying the needs of veterans and military families, particularly with employment, job training, mental health services and other support like family respite.
It is through strong corporate partnerships and generous philanthropic donations that we are able to serve more than 1.5 million people annually across the country.
Innovation and technology The pandemic brought a spotlight to the health care inequities in our society. People with disabilities are disproportionately affected by those disparities so our Network pivoted quickly – through innovation and technology – to use telehealth to be sure we were able to respond to the needs of our clients and their caregivers who depend on us for health care services.
This use of telehealth allowed us to continue to deliver many of our services – Applied Behavior Analysis for young children on the autism spectrum; early identification of developmental delays and delivery of early intervention services; physical, occupational and speech therapies; and behavioral health services.
Clients continually remark on preferring to access services through telehealth – allowing them to participate in therapies with their children or aging parent in the home.
It is for these reasons that we are advocating at the federal and state levels to have telehealth waivers become permanent.
We believe telehealth represents a sustainable solution which will continue to help us reach more people and decrease health disparities among vulnerable populations, like the people with disabilities we serve.
The next 100 years: As Easterseals moves into its second century, I am excited to grow our Network’s capacity to serve more individuals and families living with disability – heightening our impact and expanding our services – to advance disability equity in health care, education, and employment.
This vision is driven by our Network-wide strategic plan to broaden inclusion, empowerment, and access for the 1.5 million people Easterseals serves annually – and for the 1 in 4 Americans living with disability today. The plan strengthens our National Network of 67 Affiliates across the country so they can continue to respond to the increasing and evolving needs of people with disabilities so they can fully participate in their communities.
I am also excited to build awareness of and heighten engagement with Easterseals among individuals, corporations and foundations who want to support change and assure equity in the lives of people with disabilities, veterans, and seniors through high-quality services and advocacy at the federal and state levels.
Advocacy, as you might imagine, is another critical focus for Easterseals to ensure that people with disabilities have greater access to health care, education, and employment. Technology policy is central to our engagement with public and private entities given that the virtual world is increasingly the essential point of access to services and inclusion for people with disabilities.
The Americans with Disabilities Act: We just marked the 30th Anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in July. It signed into law the equality of opportunity and full participation in society for disabled individuals and went a long way in furthering the rights of this marginalized group, including access to buildings, education, employment, and government services. The law changed disability rights immensely, as now there was legal backing for so many who faced discrimination.
But the ADA did not cover everything, and the law did not eradicate microaggressions, prejudice, and violence against people with disabilities. There is still discrimination in hiring and receiving accommodations at work, and only 19% of disabled people are employed, compared to 66% of nondisabled people. People with disabilities are twice as likely to experience violence. Establishments often look for loopholes in the ADA to exclude disabled people from their business. And it wasn’t until the Affordable Care Act that insurers could not deny a person with a disability from signing up for healthcare.
There is hope that these injustices will become a memory as disabled people advocate for their rights and come together to enact change, as they always do. It was because of this activism that we have the Americans with Disabilities Act to begin with, and why we have the Affordable Care Act. It’s why we have the ADA Amendments Act of 2008, which broadened the definition of disability in the context of the law to make sure more folks were protected under it.
As leaders, both disabled and not, I passionately believe it is our duty to stand with those who stand for justice, and to lend our voice and platform for the betterment of all disabled people. We continue to see human rights groups come together in the fight for social justice – looking ahead and ensuring we pursue equality for people with disabilities and other vulnerable populations together.
People with disabilities represent 25% of the population: This large group must be included in society so that they can fully participate in their communities. Diversity, equity and inclusion of all people makes us a better society.