Disability rights activist Lydia Brown (COL ’15) joined seven other panelists at a White House event commemorating the 23rd anniversary of the Americans With Disabilities Act on Thursday.

The event, run through the White House Office of Public Engagement, featured remarks by Secretary of Labor Tom Perez, Senior Advisor to the President Valerie Jarrett and White House Domestic Policy Council Director Cecilia Munoz along with the eight panelists honored as champions of change for their advocacy work for people with physical, mental and emotional disabilities.

The White House Champions of Change program honors Americans for innovation and positive impact in various fields each week. Laura Anderko, an associate professor in the School of Nursing and Health Studies, was honored for her work raising awareness about climate-related health problems earlier this month.

The National Council on Disability nominated Brown, who is autistic, as a champion of change for her work developing the Autism Education Project. Brown has interned at the Autism Self-Advocacy Network and is spending this summer as an intern with the American Association of People With Disabilities. On campus, she has advocated for the creation of a Disability Cultural Center.

Other panelists included a Paralympic athlete, a person who suffers from chronic arthritis and a representative from the deaf community.

“I thought the folks selected were selected very well from a very broad, diverse cross section of the disability community,” Brown said.

The group discussed abuse of and violence against disabled people as well as employment discrimination. During the panel, Brown brought up the lack of community many disabled people face growing up, comparing the experience to that of gay and lesbian youth.

As disabled people, we don’t grow up as a politicized identity because our history is not taught in school,” she said during the panel. “Even if you grow up in a homophobic home … you’re generally aware there is such a thing as a queer community. When you grow up disabled, you don’t know those organizations exist. … You don’t have the choice to decide if you want to be a part of them.”

Brown said she relished the opportunity to take part in the event, which included an audience of White House staffers, representatives from the National Council on Disability and interns from the American Association of People With Disabilities.

“It’s an honor because it recognizes past work and also the perspective of continued work — advocacy to fight for a cause that’s worth believing in, worth fighting for equal rights,” Brown said. “It was a great opportunity and an amazing event, and I’m still kind of in shock.”

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