There are thousands of lobbyists in Washington, legions of well-connected pros who are hired by special interest groups to vigorously advocate for issues.
Perhaps nobody in those ranks is more committed to their cause than Kayla McKeon, the first registered Capitol Hill lobbyist with Down syndrome.
“I make personal connections, tell personal stories,” said McKeon, 30, who works for the District-based National Down Syndrome Society. “It’s hard for them to say no.”
McKeon, a New York native, has already shown her lobbying chops by helping to get a bill signed into law in December that allows people with disabilities to save greater amounts of money without penalty to their Medicaid benefits.
She said walking around Capitol Hill and persuading lawmakers to do right by people she calls “differently abled” is both exhilarating and humbling.
“I feel powerful knowing I am walking in the same steps as congressmen and women,” she said. “I can feel the power radiating as I walk around the Capitol.”
McKeon’s first advantage on Capitol Hill is that she can explain the trials of a disabled person from her heart. Her second advantage is that nothing intimidates her. She’s been giving motivational speeches at the Special Olympics since she was 18.
“She’s never nervous,” said her mother, Patti McKeon. “When she gives a speech to a big crowd, I’m a wreck, and she’s calm as can be. She doesn’t care who she is speaking to, it’s like she’s talking to her best friend. That’s a real strength when you’re talking to members of Congress.”
One of McKeon’s favorite phrases is: “I’m ready, willing and able.”
McKeon started her part-time lobbying job in October, advocating for laws that protect the rights of disabled people while making independent living easier for adults like her. She is also taking classes toward her associate degree at Onondaga Community College in central New York.
The hardest part of her job, she said, is getting on the schedules of high-powered people. The easiest part is making her pitches once she’s face-to-face.
“I’m good at being a self-advocate, of letting myself be heard,” she said.
Sara Hart Weir, president and chief executive of the National Down Syndrome Society, hired McKeon. The two first met about six years ago at various Down syndrome events. Weir said she had always been impressed with McKeon.
When they ran into each other last year in Washington, Weir decided McKeon should be on her staff. She had to ask twice, because at first McKeon wasn’t sure whether it was the right move for her.
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