Alumni Spotlight

Claudia Gordon '00: Opening Doors for Others

by Virginia Myers

When she was small, Claudia Gordon felt lost. "I felt isolated, confused, lonely. I felt oppressed, rejected."

You'd never guess it now. The 35-year-old attorney exudes confidence; she is polished, outgoing and accomplished, and her spacious office at the Department of Homeland Security includes a wall full of awards and degrees.

Gordon, the first known black, deaf, female attorney in the United States, has had her share of challenges. Born in Jamaica to an impoverished family, she became deaf as a child. Because she wasn't attending school in Jamaica, she went to live with her mother in New York, where, through grit and determination, she excelled at the Lexington School for the Deaf. She earned a degree in political science at Howard University, then graduated from the Washington College of Law in 2000. "I have been blessed to have this ability to stay steadfast and focused, to persevere over difficult and challenging times and to use those difficult and challenging times as stepping stones rather than become a victim of circumstances," she explains.

She also uses her experience to inform her work at Homeland Security, creating systems to address the needs of people with disabilities in times of disaster. Gordon was instrumental in passing an executive order committing the U.S. government to provide for this neglected population during times of earthquake, tornado, fire, flood, hurricane and acts of terrorism. Sent to Baton Rouge after Hurricane Katrina, she worked with teams of relief workers to make television emergency information accessible to deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals, accommodate older folks forced to stand in long lines for assistance, open doors for service animals barred from shelters because of a "no pet" policy, and create better physical access to shelters. She helped to create a waiver for Medicaid so it could be accepted across state lines and to add wheelchairs, crutches, hearing aid batteries, adult diapers, and sterile catheters to relief Web sites. "We were working nonstop to be sure that all of these considerations were incorporated in the fabric of the effort," says Gordon. Her efforts there earned her the Gold Medal Award from the DHS Secretary.

But much of Gordon's work involves institutionalizing aid on a broader scale. She manages the interagency council on emergency preparedness for people with disabilities, and is centralizing what was once a fragmented approach so that the neediest people will no longer be left behind. Before her position was created, she contends, "They weren't really thinking about how a person in a wheelchair would evacuate from the 20th floor of a building." Even after disasters like the wildfires in California, hurricanes Agnes and Andrew, and the terrorist attacks of 9-11, "There were just repeat examples of how this was being placed on the margins, as an afterthought."

Now Gordon coordinates more efficient approaches not only through DHS but also with relief organizations like the American Red Cross and the Salvation Army. Working from the inside, Gordon is making a difference. "There have been groups and individuals who have tried to push this issue to the forefront," she notes. "Someone like me who is passionate and dedicated really helps their cause."

It is proof of her belief that just being "one of the individuals in the room" is going to make a difference. "I believe in knocking on doors where I'm least expected," she says. In that way, many doors have been opened - and Gordon intends to set an example for others who may have felt marginalized, so that those doors will continue to open for others as well.