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Katy Neas: She can teach us all a thing or two!

by Alexandra Nava-Baltimore

[ This interview has been edited for length and clarity. ]

Spanning a powerful 30 year career, Katy Neas, the Deputy Assistant Secretary at the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (United States Department of Education), works tirelessly as she continues her plan to create a clear and strong support system for children, families, teachers, and all those involved in the education of students with and without disabilities. Using her passion and drive, along with the experience and skills she gained from her early career in Senator Harkin’s office, Easterseals, and the Physical Therapy Association, Katy is a catalyst in the world of education.


Can you share with me a bit about your family and where you grew up? What college did you attend and what was your choice of study?

“I grew up in Des Moines, Iowa. I am the middle child. I have two brothers. I had a sister who died before I was born who had multiple significant disabilities. When I was younger, my parents talked about her infrequently. Once I joined this field, I’ve learned a lot more about what her life was like, being medically fragile [and] what that was like from my parent’s perspective, my mother’s perspective, mostly. Being a family was very important to them. And there were things that we did because we were a family that was sort of the rule…why were we doing this? Well, we do this because we’re a family. That certainly was a big part of shaping me in terms of my view. Family’s always been the most important thing to me. My family is not just my biological family. I grew up in the family I’ve created but certainly the family of people I’ve gotten to know over the course of my career.

When I was in high school, one of my best friends committed suicide. It really rocked my world in a way, changing my perspective of needing to help people and wanting to not stand back on the sidelines, watching terrible things happen when maybe I could do something to alter that course. I certainly didn’t sort of sit down and say, “I’m going to channel this pain into something good.” It is just something that happened over time.

My older brother got into Georgetown. We would visit him in Washington. I thought Washington was probably the coolest place you could ever be. There was a Georgetown alumni representative in Des Moines and I had met with her several times. She suggested I apply to the School of Language and Linguistics. When you apply to the language school, you apply to a specific language. So I checked the box that said Chinese – having never studied Chinese because it was a good strategy for getting in.

So I got the letter, “Dear Miss Beh, [we are] happy to [accept you].” [When I got there] I did nothing but study. I’d go out Friday night and then I’d study all day Saturday and Sunday because I had to test every Monday morning in Chinese. I decided that studying 24 hours on the weekend was not how I wanted to spend my entire college career, so long story short, I switched majors and ended up leaving Georgetown with a French degree with a minor in economics. I was kind of a lost soul in the sense that I didn’t really know what I wanted to do when I grew up.

Do you think your time at Georgetown helped you prepare to be an advocate for the community?

I got an internship with my congressman, who was running for Senate. When I got to his office, I finally felt like I belong[ed] somewhere. It [was] like, this feels good, I like these people [and] this work. They were fun and dedicated Iowans. It was the first time in my Georgetown career that I was like, I could do this. I liked it so much that I ended up working two days a week.

I graduated at the end of May 1985 and started working in the senator’s office in July as the receptionist. Ten hours a day I answered the telephone. It was absolutely fascinating because it was during the middle of a farmer crisis. We talked to desperate farmers all day long, or old[er] people who just needed somebody to talk to. It was a great learning experience.

By the time 1987 came along, Senator Harkin was chair of the Subcommittee on The Handicapped. We changed the name to the Subcommittee on Disability Policy. Senator Harkin was the Chief Sponsor of the Americans with Disabilities Act. I was back up staff to Bobby Silverstein, our staff director. That was certainly an experience of a lifetime, to be able to work on culture-bearing change. I got to meet all the different aspects of the disability community. I met with lots of different people within the business community.

When I left Capitol Hill, I had a series of jobs. The most profound one was working at Easterseals where I was for almost 23 years, and I did public policy on behalf of kids with disabilities and their families, early education, K-12. Over the course of those 23 years, I went from one of the lobbyists to running the office.

Had I not had that job on the Hill, I never would have been at Easterseals. And if I hadn’t been in Easterseals, I would never be here. I [have] been very lucky for a clueless kid who didn’t know what she wanted to do when she was in college. I’ve been really lucky to have this magnificent career and meet these wonderful people and have the opportunity to serve. It’s not by my own design, it’s all been serendipity.

How did you prepare to start working in the Department of Education?

My husband was very sick in 2018 and 2019 while I was working for the American Physical Therapy Association. I had left Easterseals, my daughter had gone off to college, and it was time to try something new. I am grateful beyond words for my time with the American Physical Therapy Association. When the pandemic hit, it made me think about what it is that I really want to do between Ralph’s illness and the pandemic. I was getting restless and wanted to do something to serve. I had always been a Joe Biden fan. In fact, before the pandemic, I took my mom to the Iowa Caucus so she could caucus for Biden. I believed then, and believe now, that he was the person with the right temperament for what our country needs right now. So, I started talking to people who were involved in the campaign saying, “What would you think if I wanted to work for the Department of Education?” I got some positive feedback. Then it became clear that Biden would be the next president. I think for me, what was most attractive was that I had spent all this time working, mostly at Easter Seals, to see how the policies we write in Washington are actually implemented when real people are involved and what needs to happen for the policy to be meaningful.

I have helped shape the policy of the federal law, but I also was able to learn from the Easterseals affiliates that made it real for kids and families. My time at the US Department of Education is a great way to have this next chapter of my career. [The pandemic] has taken a huge toll not only on kids and families but on school systems, people who work in schools. [It] made me realize how vulnerable the whole education system is for everybody. To be a part of a group of people that wants to try to help is an honor. I feel like my whole career has prepared me for this moment. I feel the folks that I get to work with every day are just magnificent; the career staff, the political staff, the Secretary, are very invested in helping schools be open and safe and a place where kids are learning. I’ve kind of been doing this for 30 years. Again, I feel very honored to have this opportunity.

Are there any projects upcoming, or projects that you’ve worked on that you would consider major accomplishments in your career?

One of the things that is thrilling for me right now is being a part of the President’s Build-Back Better Initiative [which] includes some historic investments in childcare and preschool services. When I was at Easterseals, we helped create an inclusive child care model program because many families with kids with disabilities couldn’t find childcare to save their souls. There were childcare programs that were too afraid to take a kid with a disability. There were very few options. So we chose to create a new program. If we can’t find it, let’s build it ourselves. This model program has grown over the years. We now have this opportunity with the President’s Build Back Better Initiative, where we are going to be able to increase not only the amount of childcare, but the quality of childcare so all kids can get an appropriate early education experience, whether in a childcare setting, or in a preschool setting. The way the program has been designed with my colleagues at the Department of Health, Human Services, and the Department of Education, [is] to be inclusive of children with disabilities from the start, not as an afterthought. They’re not an add-on. It’s how we do this right from day one.

I’ve been working on inclusive early education for at least 20 years. And to see that, knowing that I have shaped the dialogue that has helped inform where we are today. When the President’s proposal in Congress hopefully [gets] approved, what that will mean for kids and working families is just mind-blowing. I’m very hopeful that the President’s plan will become law, and we can start really working on making this real.

What are your future plans? What do you think the Department of Education in terms of serving people with disabilities, or creating more innovation or technology, will look like?

The Department has a role to monitor how states oversee the implementation of the Federal Special Education Law. We are in the process of ramping up our monitoring so that states know they have a partner with us, but we expect them to meet the letter in the spirit of the law. Similarly, the Department and office I work in oversee the Vocational Rehabilitation Program, helping adults with disabilities get trained and placed in jobs appropriate for them. This is a place where we know we’ve got a lot of room for more innovation. It’s something I’m really looking forward to digging into, in how we support the Rehabilitation Agencies to have more success in helping people be employed in their communities doing things that fit their skills.

One of the reasons I’m such a huge early education advocate is because I have seen over the course of my career the different skill sets of someone who had access to early intervention, [versus] those that didn’t. By having that delay, not getting services until the K-12 world, [is] a disservice and makes it more difficult to catch up. The more we invest in early education, the better outcomes we’re going to have in employment when people leave high school or whatever it is that’s right for them. All learning really does begin at birth, and we need to support families to help them on their journey so that everybody can have the life that they want.

What do you think are the biggest misconceptions about people who have a disability? How do you think we can, as a society and the people working in your field, change that?

Stigma, low expectations, and not seeing people as people first. There’s a place for all of us. I think one benefit of working in the disability community, as long as I have, is that everybody can make a contribution. Everybody can be successful in the community. Certainly, physical access with curb cuts and electric doors makes everybody’s life easier and is beneficial, but we haven’t really realized the benefit from an employment perspective. I think in a twisted way the pandemic has opened new opportunities. We’re doing things today, [where] we don’t have to physically be together to have this conversation. You don’t have to have somebody in the office to do that job. I’m hoping that the creativity that was forced on us because of the pandemic will change our perspective of who can do what, and that we can continue to have that creativity applied to new industries so that more people can have more choices on what’s right for them.

The other thing that I think is going to make a big difference is the bill that the President is signing today, the Infrastructure Bill, where green jobs, roads and bridges, [and] all of those things are going to be jobs with different layers to them. Not everybody needs to be the engineer. Somebody needs to be the guy that plants the tree, right? These jobs are going to have such a wide range of goals resulting in the creation of new jobs for people with different skill sets. I’m very hopeful that this is really a major turn in our employment opportunities for people with disabilities.

Why do you think it’s important for society to consider inclusion and inclusivity when thinking about jobs or leadership roles, and companies hiring people?

As an able-bodied middle-class, white woman, over 50, I have learned in my career that we are individually better off when we can collaborate with someone who is different from us. Hands down, no contest. We all bring the stories of our upbringing with us, we all have different experiences that shape us. I think having genuine, authentic experiences shaped how we make policy, how we think about the implementation of policy. Without that diversity, the policy just isn’t that good. It’s not as good as if it was informed by these different perspectives.

Who has been your role model or inspiration throughout your career? Has anyone shaped you or guided you in the work that you have been a part of?

There have been a number of both personal and professional role models. Certainly, Senator Harkin helped launch me and without him, I wouldn’t be sitting here. I’m just profoundly grateful for the opportunity to have been able to learn so much [from him]. When I worked in the Senate, Bobby Silverstein was my boss, and now my dear friend. One of the things Bobby taught me was you can never be over-prepared, do your homework, and always treat people with respect.

My parents and especially my mother [too] who just turned 90. She’s had some health challenges and just moved into assisted living. Her vision and hearing are not great now and she’s now walking with a walker. But man, she has rolled with what life has thrown at her and [has] always come out with her head up and lipstick on. She is creative and smart, there’s not anything she couldn’t do. Her confidence in who she is and her personal strength are things that make me proud of her every day. She’s been an awesome role model over these 58 years.

Is there anything else that you want people to know about your work on behalf of people with disabilities in the Department of Education?

I’m so lucky to be able to work for Secretary Cardona and President Biden, I really think that this Administration wants to partner with all Americans to try to make things better. When the President discusses Build Back Better, he really means it. Our schools get to have the support that they need. So teachers are adequately supported, both financially and with resources where kids and families feel like school and their communities are a place that welcomes them. To be a part of that strong desire to help Americans and especially Americans with young children have the opportunities that they want for themselves so that their children can grow up and be productive contributors to their community.

We are all one-car accident or one major health crisis away from needing those supports ourselves, and you never know when you’re going to need them. I think we as neighbors, friends and their families, need to help create that community where everybody can be successful.

How do we create a foundation, so people can soar and people can do what they want to do, and have the opportunity to figure it out, and then to act on what it is that they want to do? I think that’s part of our role here at the Department is to create those support systems. That’s what I’m hoping we can do over the next four to eight years. That’s what gets me out of bed in the morning – how can we make the system strong so everybody can be successful?

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