Disability Justice Leaders at the City of Portland

Blog Post
Three different photos, side by side, show three different situations. The first photo shows a Black person looking at the camera, wearing glasses and a pandemic mask, with short hair, standing while leaning on a cane. The second photo shows a family looking at the camera with two adults and two children. The third photo shows a person in a wheelchair holding a basketball on an indoor basketball court during a game.
Here are the experiences of three City of Portland employees.
In this article
“We are powerful, not despite the complexities of our bodies, but because of them.”
- Skin, Tooth, and Bone: The Basis of Movement is Our People
(A Disability Justice Primer, second edition)

The Citywide Disability Equity Goals, passed by City Council in November 2020, are a key accountability tool for making the City of Portland services, employment and contracting inclusive of those with disabilities. The work of the Disability Employment Program (housed in the Bureau of Human Resources) makes this possible. Since 2018, this program has been:

  • Creating and implementing disability-inclusive Citywide policies and processes
  • Educating City staff on employment-related civil rights of persons with disabilities
  • Facilitating a welcoming and accessible daily work culture for all City employees
  • Conducting outreach and recruitment to diverse applicants with disabilities
  • Monitoring the City’s progress on disability employment through data collection

Results from their 2019 internal survey found that the number of employees who self-identified as having a disability went up from 148 to 332. As of January 2022, there are 389 employees (5.6%) who have self-identified as having a disability, and 6.6% of the City’s managers and supervisors have self-identified as having a disability. The percentage of people in the Portland area with disability is roughly 21.8%.

The history of disability rights reaches back decades before the Americans with Disabilities Act, which was signed into federal law 31 years ago---and the advocacy continues today. Here are the voices of three City of Portland employees who are working so that everyone in the disability community is heard, so that disability justice truly becomes a Portland value.

Leila Haile

A young Black person uses a cane while standing in front of a red trellis with green vines. They are wearing black-framed glasses, a pandemic mask, dusty red shirt, black coat, and denim shorts, and their eyes are crinkled in a smile as they look at the camera.
Leila Haile’s portrait is courtesy of the stock photo website Disabled and Here

Office of Community and Civic Life - Disability Program Coordinator

Pronouns: they/them

What are some programs you are working on that you're excited about?

I have the opportunity to design work groups that center folks of color with disabilities. Community engagement means that folks feel empowered to collectively make decisions and solve their own problems.

I really believe in developing new leaders in community. I believe that everyone is a leader. So that's what I'm really excited about, is bringing that development tool to mutual aid groups, individuals and activists and truly small grassroots groups who are struggling and need that support; and creating quarterly work groups where folks can gather around specific issues that they're working on --- whether that's food security, housing, security, education.

We need to start from the ground up and use a people-centered approach. Because if you're doing that, then you don't have to go back to community and say, “Oh, did we do this right?”

How has your involvement with the community outside of work informed your advocacy?

It keeps me authentic in my work, and it makes sure that I'm transparent and accountable. I don't think that anyone who's not deeply involved in community should be in government. I have a dedication to making sure that I'm putting in volunteer hours with people.

You know, my salary should pay for me to give that labor out in community because, you know, volunteering is not equitable and it's not a model that works for poor folks. We can't just be giving away labor like that. And we often do this work out of necessity for the survival of ourselves in our communities.

It shouldn't be white elected leaders going into black and brown communities and doing photo ops, they should be going into their own communities and doing that work. I would love to see (Mayor) Ted Wheeler collectively organize for wealth redistribution with his fellow white folks with money. That would go a long way towards making sure our work is authentic.  

That's what a civil servant is, you should be serving the community.

Why is it important to have a disability employment program?

There's this narrative that folks with disabilities are not useful unless they are productive in some way, and that productivity is always through an ableist lens.

Even when we are employed, there is the monster of what it is to wrestle with employment as a person with a disability. For me to get a schedule adjustment as an accommodation with the city, I have to list out very personal medical reasons why I would need a schedule adjustment. And that's not accessible, right? Making people provide reasoning for their accommodations is both invasive and humiliating.

It's not like the program is said and done, it's a process. A lot of people can't even engage with that because a lot of disability programs you can't access if you make over a certain amount of money, which is also messed up because being disabled costs more --- you inevitably pay more to have the same amount of access as people who are able-bodied or neurotypical.

How do you identify?

Depends on who's asking. But in all seriousness, my identity has to change based on who's asking, for my own safety. I'm not necessarily going to tell everybody that I'm trans immediately because I don't know how safe I am around them. And if they want to assume things about my gender, I'm just going to let that happen because I don't have the time or the energy. Like, obviously, I'm Black, no matter who's looking at me, right? Well, that's one of those fixed pieces of identity that doesn't really change or I can't really mask at all. I might not choose to immediately disclose that I'm neurodivergent to somebody because I don't know how they will take that. You know, people have a lot of feelings around that and what that means. And I don't want somebody treating me like I'm stupid just because my brain functions differently.

What can coworkers, friends, neighbors do to support people they know who are differently abled?

Well, firstly, they should know that disability is not a bad word. So just say disabled, it's OK. Ableism works in so many funny ways that we don't even notice the ways in which we are perpetuating it because it's so deeply ingrained in our system, and so deeply intermingled with white supremacy and anti-Blackness. So I would say like, if you want to support people, then the revolution starts at home, you know, pick up “Skin, Tooth and Bone” and learn about the principles of disability justice and ask yourself how you do or do not embody those things.

Christina Wienholz

A family of two white adults and two white children smile at the camera while standing on an outdoors rooftop during a bright sunny day. A dusty brown mountain range and clear sky can be seen in the distant background.
Christina Wienholz (top right) with her husband, Joe; daughter, Kateri; and son, Ben.

311 Customer Service Representative

Pronouns: she/her

What is 311?

311 is a phone line answered by customer service representatives that helps Portlanders get access to their local government (at the City of Portland and Multnomah County).

We're specifically set up for those community members that may not have computer access or are traditionally impacted by (a lack of) language access or that have disabilities that make access more difficult.

How does being a disability justice advocate help you at work?

It gives me a greater sense of empathy for our callers. I understand their frustration with local government -- their feeling that they don't have access -- because I've felt that before.

I think that helps me listen to their frustration and receive it, but at the same time, teach them some of the skills that they might need to get greater access and be their own best advocate.

Why is it important for the City of Portland to have a Disability Employment Program?

I believe it's important to have the disability employment program, because representation matters. If you don't see yourself in positions of leadership, it's hard to believe that you can affect policy. So I think it's incredibly important that all people, no matter their disability status, gender orientation, sexual orientation or race or culture are represented in our local government. If they're not seen in the government that serves this city, we're doing those communities a disservice.

What can coworkers, friends, neighbors and family do to support people they know who have disability?

They can listen and believe the stories of people with disabilities -- believe that it is true, even if it's not your experience. I think sometimes it's easy to say, “Oh, maybe it isn't that bad.” But if someone with the disability is telling you what their experience is, believe it and act on what they say if you can.

If you are in a position of privilege to be able to affect policy or change things, be an advocate and an ally for your coworker, family member or friend who has a disability.

What has your journey been like as a disability justice advocate?

Initially, I became involved with Resolutions Northwest. They work to create opportunities for conversations about racial equity and other aspects of social justice. At the time they had a partnership with the Office of Community and Civic Life to do neighbor to neighbor mediation. So that was my initial connection to the city, where I then joined the Disability Leadership Academy.

The Disability Leadership Academy and being surrounded by colleagues who have disabilities in a professional setting who had different experiences --- but similar experiences to me, was really my first opportunity to be in conversation and community with them. That's when I started to recognize that there was a whole culture and community associated with disability and people who experienced it.

I was born with cerebral palsy and grew up with a lot of economic privilege. I had all of the things that I needed. When I finally recognized I had a disability, you know, it was kind of surprising, if that makes sense, because I spent so much time assimilating to the majority culture and not really celebrating my disability. I am in a place where I can now celebrate that.

The City of Portland’s Disability Leadership Academy taught me how to be an advocate in a different way, to see myself as part of the community and part of the community that could push policy and affect change for everyone rather than, how do I individually get access because I personally want and need access? It's a communal effort and I am not outside of the community.

I had to figure out ways to use my privilege to lift up people whose voices weren't at the table. Even though I have a disability, I still benefit from white supremacy. It's my job then, as a person who identifies as white, to amplify the voices of people of color, people with different sexual orientations, different cultural experiences. I think Resolutions Northwest in particular was really formational in giving me the vocabulary and the desire to do that.

Final thoughts?

There's this term of “temporarily abled.” Most people will experience a disability at some point. Now that we're living into our eighties and nineties, it's quite likely that we will experience a disability, whether it's permanent or temporary.

I think once the community as a whole and the nation, the city get a grasp on that – it's like, if I uplift people with disabilities, I'm actually ensuring that I will have access at some point. And if we see ourselves as one community working for the benefit of everyone, we'll actually benefit as a society.

Stu Heath

A young white person in a wheelchair wearing a blue disposable mask and a red jersey that says “Wheel Blazers” gets ready to pass a basketball during an indoor basketball game. Two other basketball players with wheelchairs and white jerseys can be seen in the background watching a different game.
Stu Heath competes in wheelchair basketball at a recent tournament in the Portland area.

Bureau of Development Services - Development Services Technician

Pronouns: he/him

Can you talk about your involvement with the community outside of work?

I work as a youth wheelchair basketball coach outside of work and I also serve as a peer mentor for people who are newly injured with a spinal cord injury, trying to help them with how to get used to a new way of life.

Coaching basketball is a way to show the kids that they can do just as much as able-bodied people and actually just live a normal life regardless of the situation that they're in. It's a super fun way to stay involved in the community and hopefully change some lives.

A friend brought me to an adult wheelchair basketball practice, and I was really reluctant to go. I've played super competitive basketball my entire life, all the way up until college. It's my favorite thing to do. And because of that, going to a wheelchair basketball practice didn't seem right. It wasn’t what I was used to.

Then I gave it a year and now I love it. Because of that, I would watch the youth practice and see them do the same thing --- get frustrated because it's hard to dribble and push at the same time. But if you stick with it, it can become super fun.

You've started an affinity group. What would you like us to know about it?

I started an affinity group at the City of Portland for people who identify as having a disability, whether it physically presents itself or doesn't. So that could be anything from anxiety and depression to what I have, which is a Spinal Cord Injury T4 Paraplegia Incomplete.

The group is for anyone in that situation that could benefit from sharing their experiences, whether it's in the workplace or out of the workplace, or if they just need to vent about something.

It’s like wheelchair basketball, where you have a bunch of guys who are all in a similar situation and are  given the space to talk about anything like, how do you pull your pants up in a wheelchair --- you're able to ask without any guilt or any shame and get the answer quicker than just fumbling with it for years.

We had over 30 people show up to the first meeting, and I'm really excited about it, even in this super infant stage.

So I think identifying people who are willing to step up and also do the work with me has been super important because I'm not doing this alone and I don't want to.

What was the feeling in that first meeting?

For me personally, the feeling that I perceived from the meeting was a sense of “finally.” I know that's not a feeling, but it's almost like a relief --- OK, I feel noticed, I feel validated. That was really gratifying, and I'm really excited to where we can go from here and possibly change policy or just get more people with disabilities confident in themselves.

I think there's truth to having power in numbers. I mean, it took veterans climbing out of their wheelchairs and crawling up the steps (of the U.S. Capitol building) to get the ADA passed.

I don't think it's going to take that, but I do think having people together with a common voice can get a lot more accomplished.

Why is it important to have a disability employment program?

It's important that your workforce resembles the real world. Also, it's important to make it a priority because this is a community that can become insular due to what they perceive the public sees them as. And that's speaking for myself. I'm not speaking for anybody else, but I know in the beginning when I first broke my back, I was really self-conscious. So I think by having these initiatives that really force the issue, it gets people out of their shell and at least gives them the perception that they're wanted.

What can coworkers, friends, neighbors and family do to support people they know who have disability?

I think it's important to just listen. Everyone's different. So come at it with a sense of compassion, but don't feel bad for people. I don't want you to look at me as like, “Oh, I'm so sorry. What can I do to help you right now?” Like, I'm good. Maybe just a glass of water.

It's one of those things where you just want to be treated like a normal person because that's how I see myself. I think one of the weird things is, people say, “Oh, you're such an inspiration.” Because I got up this morning and put on my pants and brushed my teeth and made it to work?

And also, not all disabilities are the same --- so there's no blanket way to do everything. And I am giving you a blanket way to do everything, but I think it's the easiest way, is to start from the common denominator --- they’re a person, you're a person.


Bureau of Human Resources - Front Desk