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Griffin Goes to Washington

champions working rights of disabled

Christine M. Griffin
At the EEOC, Griffin seizes the opportunity to influence national policy.

For someone who declared she would never work in an office and planned to be a ship’s engineer, the headquarters of a federal bureaucracy is an unexpected setting.

But the swearing-in of Christine M. Griffin ’93 on January 3, 2006, as a Commissioner of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the agency that regulates national laws relating to discrimination in the workplace, marked the latest landmark in a career that has been anything but predictable.

Born in Dorchester, Massachusetts, Griffin, fifty-one, was in her junior year at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy, training to become a marine engineer, when a car accident left her partially paralyzed and wheelchair-bound. She finished her studies and graduated in 1983 to a standing ovation from her classmates.

Griffin put her engineering skills to use not on the high seas but in the laboratory of the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in Winchester, Massachusetts, testing medical devices from heart-lung machines to blood pressure cuffs. Later, as a field investigator, she often found herself entering the premises of medical equipment manufacturers via loading dock ramps, in the absence of proper disabled access. “Gee, that’s not fair,” she remembers thinking, but at that time she had “no idea that laws existed to protect people with disabilities,” she said in a recent interview.

Griffin’s interest in the law was sparked by her involvement in the FDA prosecution of a Massachusetts medical device manufacturer, and she entered BC Law School in 1990 with the idea of becoming a legal advisor for the FDA or a medical equipment company.

Her arrival at law school coincided with the passage of the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Boston lobbyist Tom O’Neill hired her as a summer intern to study the ADA and report on its potential ramifications, and in doing so, set her on a new path. Griffin became absorbed in the evolving area of disability legislation and for the first time met people from the disability advocacy community.

As staff attorney for, and later executive director of the Boston Disability Law Center, Griffin proved a distinguished leader in that community, a tireless advocate for the rights of disabled people to adequate housing, transportation, and, above all, employment. “Unless you have a job,” said Griffin, “you can’t get any of the other things Americans have. If you live on benefits, you are oppressed and poor for the rest of your life.”

A brief stint at the EEOC as a senior staff attorney in the mid-1990s showed Griffin first-hand the agency’s impact on employment prospects of people who face discrimination on any grounds, from age to disability. After being approached twice within the last two years to fill a Democratic vacancy on the five-member bipartisan commission, and refusing for family reasons, Griffin consented to have her name put forward. With support from Democratic senators Edward M. Kennedy (Massachusetts) and Harry Reid (Nevada), she won the Presidential nomination in July 2005, and unanimous Senate confirmation in November.

The opportunity to influence national policy on the employment issues she cares about so deeply was one that Griffin ultimately “couldn’t pass up.” Her immediate focus will be close to home: Since taking office she has seen data suggesting that the number of people with disabilities employed by federal agencies has been decreasing over the last five years. Griffin hopes the commission will agree to form a task force to investigate this apparent trend and identify remedies.

Griffin is optimistic about prospects for collaboration with her colleagues on the commission. But with an estimated 70 percent of disabled people unemployed, Griffin conceded: “We have lots of work to do to change society’s fears, myths, and stereotypes of people with disabilities and their ability to work.”

—Jane Whitehead

 

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