“All policy is disability policy”


By Shanice Harris

Diversity & Inclusion Social Justice

The Center for Racial and Disability Justice’s Kate Caldwell discusses policy silos, increasing grassroots involvement and race and intersections of inequality

Kate Caldwell recently joined the Center for Racial and Disability Justice (CRDJ) — one of the many centers housed at Northwestern Pritzker School of Law — as its new director of research and policy. With a background in disability employment and entrepreneurship and social entrepreneurship, Caldwell is looking forward to translating research into policy and creating tools and materials for advocates and policymakers.

When the center launched in the fall of 2022, faculty director Jamelia Morgan said she wanted to promote justice for people of color, people with disabilities and individuals at the intersection of both identities.

“There’s a saying among disability policy wonks that all policy is disability policy because it applies to health care, transportation, housing, employment, foreign affairs — everything,” Caldwell said. “Alice Wong — famed disability activist — said disabled people are oracles because we see what’s going to happen before it hits the general population, because it affects the disability community first and especially those living at areas of intersecting disadvantage.”

Prior to joining CRDJ, Caldwell taught interdisciplinary disability studies research methods at the undergraduate and graduate levels — especially regarding participatory and emancipatory methods. She also has written extensively on bisexuality and disability theory. She continues to work with policymakers and legislators at the federal, state and local levels, including members of Congress, the State Exchange on Employment and Disability (SEED) and the Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities (MOPD).

Since joining the team, Caldwell has written to the director of the U.S. Census Bureau regarding a recent proposed change to the census that would result in an undercount for disabled people. She also wrote an article for Medium, responding to U.S. Department of Labor stakeholder sessions on subminimum wage. She is looking forward to developing curriculum and debuting the center’s disability policy tracker soon.

“I am excited about doing research that captures the lived experience and needs of marginalized communities and getting that research into the hands of decision-makers,” Caldwell said. “Sharing their experiences has the potential to have a positive impact on their lives and their communities. This is part of the knowledge mobilization strategy I will be implementing at CRDJ. I also want to use research to create information, resources and tools that community members can use to advocate for their rights.”

In an interview with Northwestern Now, Caldwell discussed her decades-long history in fighting for disability rights, how important intersectionality is when creating policy and what she hopes to accomplish in her first year.

How does this role serve the broader mission of the center?

This new role is important for the disability community as a whole. Disability studies, advocacy and rights, and policy have long been criticized for not doing enough on race and intersections of inequality. A lot of the work I’ve been doing has been trying to include discussions of race because it reflects what’s happening in the real world. That’s where the connection to policy is. It’s why I’m so excited about this role because it allows me to do what I care about most — translating research into policy and creating tools and materials I can give to advocates and to policymakers, so that when they’re making policy decisions that are going to impact people’s lives, they have information right in front of them that will inform that decision.

Why is it so important to have diverse voices in the room when policy is made?

We want to provide a platform for those people who are going to be directly affected by these policies and legislation to have a voice in that process themselves.

There is an education gap, and a lot of that is influenced by the multiple systems of oppression that affect educational opportunities for disabled people in general, but especially disabled people of color. It’s important for our center to be a part of creating transformative change by creating a talent pipeline where we can work with students and fellows and provide them a platform to advance their professional development beyond the center.

How has your previous work prepared you for this role?

A lot of my background is in disability employment and entrepreneurship and social entrepreneurship. When you look at the literature on disability entrepreneurship, most of it is focused on one small demographic. A lot of the research that had been done was conducted through state vocational rehabilitation, only 14% of which offer entrepreneurship to the people they serve. Further, there is bias in whom it is offered to. Research shows disabled women and people of color are often not thought of as a “good” investment for entrepreneurship and self-employment — they don’t think they’ll be successful — so they don’t even offer them the services or they turn them away. My work has been flushing out systems like this. 

Why is intersectionality important in policy work?

In policy, we have what’s called ‘policy silos.’ It’s where different agencies and sectors aren’t speaking to each other. For example, education policy might not actually align with employment policy, which might not align with other policy. There is an effort in government to break down those silos and align. But those policy alignments don’t work if we don’t take into consideration the systemic changes that need to be addressed first — ableism, racism, sexism and LGBTQ status — because you need to understand those intersectional axes of oppression in order to create and implement effective policy across the board.

What do you hope to accomplish in your first year?

We’re solidifying the programs for the center. I’m excited about that because I love building, and I’m excited to have more grassroots involvement. It’s one area where the center is committed to making progress. I’m focused on getting a seat at the table, on being part of the discussions and making sure that people understand we’re going to have a conversation around race and disability and everything that comes with it — gender, sexual orientation and immigrant status. It’s long past time we reckoned with these issues in our society, especially when it comes to research and policy. That’s really the goal, to make a splash.

This article originally appeared in Northwestern Now.