Kayla McKeon, This woman is an exceptionally effective Capitol Hill lobbyist. She also has Down syndrome.
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 Kayla McKeon, 30, who works for the D.C.-based National Down Syndrome Society. “It’s hard for them to say no.”
Kayla 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.”
Kayla 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.”
Kayla 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’s 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 it was the right move for her.
“I wanted to put somebody on staff like Kayla who would influence members of Congress,” Weir said. “Kayla is one of the most impressive young vibrant individuals with Down syndrome I have ever met. She’s spunky, she doesn’t take no for an answer, and she’s quite charming. She has all the characteristics of an exceptional lobbyist.”
Although Kayla McKeon hesitated at first because it would be such a big life change, she now loves her job.
She lives in Syracuse with her parents, but she commutes to Washington and other cities as needed. She is independent and travels alone, making her way around on airplanes, public transportation and Lyft.
Kayla McKeon’s lobbying gig — which has led her to meetings with lawmakers including House Speaker Paul D. Ryan — is not her first job in politics. She interned for her congressman, Rep. John Katko (R-N.Y.), after meeting him in 2014 at a baseball game fundraiser in Syracuse.
“She handed me her card and it said, ‘Kayla McKeon, motivational speaker,’ ” he said, adding that McKeon instructed him to call her. “Right then I knew there was something special about her.”
The two stayed in touch, and Kayla McKeon ended up working as an intern in his office answering constituent mail and handling other office duties. She was playing on a Special Olympics floor hockey team at the time, and he showed up to support her and her parents.
Through Kayla McKeon, he also started supporting the National Down Syndrome Society and advocating to include people with disabilities in the workplace.
“She really opened my eyes,” he said. “She is an eloquent spokeswoman for her cause.”
Last year, Katko was a co-sponsor of the bill that allowed people with disabilities to make larger contributions to tax-exempt savings accounts. He joked that Kayla McKeon would have had his head if he didn’t support the measure.
“When she comes in my office as a lobbyist she’s awesome. She’s all business,” he said.
Kayla McKeon’s mother said she thinks her daughter operates fluidly in the able-bodied world in part because she always was in mainstream schools as a child. She had an aide with her to help her through the school day, but she insisted on being with non-disabled kids rather than in a different school.