For many, coming out as LGBT after growing up Catholic would be challenging enough. Yet for former Obama administration aide Mark Perriello, 36, who grew up in Chelmsford, Mass., outside Boston, that was only one of the challenges that he had to face. Visually impaired since he was a child, he had to come out not only as gay but as a person with a disability.
Today, Perriello, known in the LGBT community as a political strategist, is the new president and CEO of the American Association of People with Disabilities, the country’s largest cross-disability membership group. Perriello’s well-regarded grassroots development and political strategizing in the LGBT community played a key role in his appointment to this position, said AAPD board members, who believe these skills will empower the bi-partisan, disability advocacy organization. He took the helm of AAPD on June 6.
In an interview the with Blade in his K Street office in Washington, D.C., Perriello discussed the parallels between the LGBT and disability civil rights movements and his goals for AAPD. (This month, in commemoration of the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act on July 26, 1990, is Disability Pride Month.)
In his boyhood, he was taught that being gay was a sin, Perriello said. In his youth, he became involved with the ex-gay movement.
“I thought that if I just prayed hard enough, that I would be able to change,” Perriello said.
Perriello didn’t come out until he was a student at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tenn., where he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in religious studies. “I had a lot of positive role models,” he said, “they helped me to be comfortable with the fact that I’m gay.”
Yet, as difficult as coming to terms with his sexual orientation was for him, Perriello also had to become comfortable within himself about having and disclosing his disability. His vision impairment is a result of an infection called toxoplasmosis. He is blind in his right eye and, with corrective lenses, has 20/20 vision in his left eye.
“In many ways it was more challenging to come out as a person with a disability than it was to come out as LGBT,” Perriello said, “There is a lot of stigma that unfortunately in our society goes along with disability.”
From grade school through college, he was teased about his vision impairment, Perriello said. Other students would have him close his left (sighted) eye to find out what they could do in front of him that he couldn’t see, he said. “Some of it would be more subtle,” Perriello said, “from preconceived notions of whether I could perform in an athletic environment … all the way to people thinking it was a great trick at fraternity parties, which was less subtle.”
But the bullying, though painful, made him stronger, Perriello said, “because you know when the teasing needs to stop.”
He’s always identified as a person with a disability and viewed disability as a civil rights issue, Perriello said. But, “I didn’t become engaged in the disability community until I began working at the White House,” he added.
Before joining the Obama administration, Perriello’s civil rights advocacy took place in the LGBT community. He served in leadership roles — fundraising, organizing and developing communication strategies at the Human Rights Campaign and the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund and Leadership Institute. Perriello also was vice president of BNA Communications and a senior associate at Scott + Yandura.
In the Obama administration, Perriello served as the White House liaison at the U.S. Department of the Interior and the White House Priority Placement director. In this position, he became actively involved with the disability community, Perriello said.
“Working to help qualified candidates from under-represented groups find employment in the Obama administration, I witnessed the challenges that people with disabilities often face in the hiring process,” he said.
Disabled people, looking for work, sometimes encounter accessibility issues such as lack of wheelchair access, Perriello said. “Some employers fear that there’s too much cost in providing assistive technology or other types of accommodation,” he said. “Other employers feel that people with disabilities lack the intellectual capacity to work,” Perriello said. “This is not the case.”
As Priority Placement Office head, Perriello worked with AAPD’s board. “I came to believe that this civil rights fight is one that has a lot of work ahead,” he said.
He looks forward to helping AAPD work to overcome the stigma and injustice encountered by many with disabilities, Perriello said.
“It’s going to take a long time, but you know it and I know it. Americans with disabilities are just like everyone else,” he said. “They show up and do good work.”
LGBT culture is “very image conscious” and there is some stigma against people with disabilities that goes along with that, Perriello said. “But it’s the same stigma whether you’re gay or straight,” he said. “The challenges are the same. Whether it’s lacking access to a bar or some other social environment.”
We’re hit daily with stereotypical images of people with disabilities through social media, TV and movies, Perriello said. “This is true in gay and straight culture. At AAPD we’re hoping to change that.”
As an example of this effort, Perriello cited AAPD’s 2011 Gala, where the group bestowed its Image Award on the cast and creative team of “Glee,” for the show’s diversity, including its disability storylines, and characters and actors with disabilities.
There are parallels between the disability and the LGBT civil rights movements, Perriello said. Just as there are people in the LGBT community who aren’t active politically, he said, “there are a lot of Americans with disabilities out there that aren’t engaged in the [disability] civil rights fight.”
Perriello, working with the AAPD team, is determined to strive to make the disability community more engaged on the political level. There are strategies and tactics that he used as an LGBT political strategist, that can be used to engage the disability community, Perriello said. “Anything from making it easier for folks to understand the positions of their elected officials, to seeing how we can work to influence elections and show … that we’re a powerful constituency.”
Helping to connect folks with the best employers and the best companies to work for is something that the LGBT community does well, Perriello said. “It’s something that we [in the disability community] could do as well if not better.”
To be engaged, you have to have a “sense of self-worth,” Perriello said. You have to show the next generation, “that you can do whatever you want. That is a parallel to the LGBT community. It happens because folks are out there, they’re leading businesses—they’re elected officials.”
The challenges Perriello faces are formidable. Seventy percent of Americans with disabilities are unemployed or under employed, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Twenty-five percent of people with disabilities surveyed by a 2010 Harris Poll were unfamiliar with the ADA, a civil rights law prohibiting disability-based discrimination in employment and public accommodations.
Perriello is well-suited to meet these challenges, said Cheryl Sensenbrenner, a former AAPD board chair, in a telephone interview. “His grassroots and organizing skills honed in the LGBT community are transferable,” she said, “He’s well-suited to take AAPD to the next level.”
Winnie Stachelberg, senior vice president of external affairs of the Center for American Progress, describes herself as a “huge fan” of AAPD and of Perriello.
“I met Mark over a decade ago when I hired him to work for HRC,” said Stachelberg. “Mark intuits how to help diverse people work well together to focus on a common goal. He won’t be the loudest voice, but he’ll be the one driving change.”