Disability Awareness and Local Government: An Interview with Michael Boynton

Issues, observations, and ideas for greater inclusion and equity

Feb 1, 2021 | ARTICLE

As part of ICMA’s ongoing commitment to fostering a greater awareness of equity and inclusion in local government, we spoke with Michael Boynton, town manager of Medway, Massachusetts, to discuss the topic of disability awareness. Michael has been a member of ICMA for 30 years, and is one of the few members who faces this topic both from a professional and personal perspective each and every day.

Your career in local government spans 30 years. Can you tell us about your background?

My first municipal appointment was in 1989. It was on the street lighting committee in Franklin, Massachusetts, the town I grew up in. I had just gotten my bachelor’s degree in political science from Fairfield University, and I knew I wanted to do something, but I wasn’t sure where to start. The next thing I know I’m running for town council at 22 years old. I lost on my first run, but I got appointed to the finance committee shortly thereafter. In 1992, I gave it a shot again and was elected. At that time, I was the youngest person in Franklin to be elected to the council. Simultaneous to all of that, in 1990, I began my public service career with Norfolk County, Massachusetts, working for the sheriff’s department. For five years, I worked in a few different capacities from inventory control to purchasing coordinator. In 1995, a year after I finished my MPA, I was appointed as the first administrative assistant in the town of Mendon, and held that job for almost two years before becoming the town administrator in Sutton, Massachusetts. After five years in Sutton, I moved on to the role of town administrator in Walpole, a community of around 24,000, and stayed there for almost 13 years. I’m currently town manager in Medway, Massachusetts. I’ve been in this role since 2014, and I absolutely love it.

One of the reasons we’re speaking today is to learn more about your experience and perspective as a local government leader living with a disability. Can you tell us about that?

My family and I phrase it as “I got sick” in 1979. I was 12 years old and I was diagnosed with acute transverse myelitis. My body went from a fairly physically normal 12 year old to a quadriplegic and on a ventilator within 24 hours after onset. They didn’t think I was going to make it, but Children’s Hospital in Boston did an amazing job and I pulled through. I spent six months in three different Boston hospitals recovering from the transverse myelitis and left the hospital wheelchair bound in June of 1980. Fortunately within probably a month to two months of being home, I started walking again, but my recovery plateaued after about 12 months. I have had a fair number of physical challenges through the last 41 years, including two incidents of spinal fractures, but overall nothing that has kept me down. Today, I continue to walk with a cane or at times use a mobility scooter when traveling. But nevertheless, I don’t look at myself as being disabled. I look at it as being physically challenged.

I’ve found a way to work around all of those limitations. There are frustrations; there are some days that are worse than others. But instead of getting to that point where I have self-pity, I think back to some of the kids that were in the hospital with me, recognizing that some of those kids were never leaving the hospital. Some of those kids were never going to have a career and were never going to do what I do. It would be really inappropriate for me to complain about where I am in life in comparison because those kids never got the chances that have been afforded to me. I can’t say at all that I’m unhappy with where I am today. I’m thrilled with the things that have I have been able to accomplish personally and the things I’ve been able to do and accomplish for my communities.

What aspects of accessibility do you wish local government leaders were more aware of?

Looking back, the Americans with Disabilities Act was adopted in 1990, and now it’s 30 years later. We still talk about only portions of buildings or sections of parking lots that need to be accessible. We still put financial limitations on how much needs to be accessible. Why are we still having these same conversations? As an example, why isn’t every bathroom completely accessible? Why isn’t every bathroom stall able to accommodate a wheelchair? Why isn’t every single door opening at least 36 inches wide? Why do we still allow exemptions? It’s 30 years later—all new construction should be fully accessible.

In Massachusetts, we have the Architectural Access Board and the Board of Building Regulations and Standards, which essentially sets the building code for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. At what point in time do we have that conversation about mandating that every single door that you put in a building be accessible, every single entrance, every light switch, simply everything. The technology is possible and the capability is there, but we haven’t truly worked past the allowable exemptions that were included in the ADA 30 years ago. I even regret that I have not acted as more of an advocate for change in this area.

That’s on the physical side. In the context of disability, one positive thing that I would say has happened since 1990 is that we have modified and broadened the scope of disability. Some would argue that that might not be beneficial, but I think it certainly has been. The ADA had a narrow view of those with disabilities being people in wheelchairs and people that need to walk with a cane. But we certainly know now from experience that there are a number of folks that deal with disability in a very different way, and that may be something that’s not visible. The world is now more aware of social, emotional, mental, or behavioral types of disabilities that exist.

So from an employment perspective, I think that we have at least created a better environment for people that have disabilities to be able to thrive as public employees. But even in the municipal sector, we have a long way to go. As municipal managers, we’re not strictly charged with instilling a better sense of inclusion just for our workforce. We also have the same mission ahead of us to be able to make our communities more inclusive and accessible as well.

In your experience, how has disability awareness within local government changed over the years?

I think we’ve opened the door for folks who have had doors that have been closed in terms of what is considered a disability. There is a difference between an illness and a disability, and I think what we’ve been able to do from a public policy perspective is to be able to differentiate between the two and advocate for folks that truly have permanent life challenges. Some disabling conditions can be short term, but for the most part, for those that have lifetime conditions to deal with, we’ve given them greater opportunities to thrive.

And I think, as leaders, we have hopefully become a lot more sensitive to the topic. I had an individual who was a worker in one of my communities, and he was required to have a certain license as a condition of employment. He was doing a series of verbal practice tests for the license, and he would answer almost every question correctly. Then he had to take the actual written exam, and he failed three times in a row. As his supervisors explained the scenario to me, I knew that there was something missing here. So I had the individual come in and sit with me, and I said, “This is a very difficult question for me to ask. And I apologize for asking it, but I think this may be in your best interest.” I asked him if he could read. He admitted that he had never really been able to read. So what had happened was that from a verbal perspective, they were teaching him the components of what the license required. But when he went to take the test, he didn’t understand the questions as they were written. I said, “Well, in that case, this is a true appropriate implementation of a reasonable accommodation.” We allowed him to stay in his position and modified his job requirements. He was a very valued worker, somebody who gave 150 percent every day. When it comes to disabilities, this is the type of thing that we all need to be cognizant of. There are going to be cognitive disabilities, for example, or other limitations that employees are too embarrassed to admit. We might not see it, and it doesn’t necessarily sit right in front of you, but there are circumstances that we will all encounter as managers in which we have to be observant, flexible, and open-minded.

What non-physical or social barriers do you feel local government leaders most need to educate themselves on?

One of the biggest challenges is that municipal government has a very traditional history to it. Tradition is a very tough thing to break. As an example, as leaders we need to think about allowing people with disabilities to pursue their interest in a certain career field despite having a physical barrier to that job. We need to think about how we can modify our workforce or modify job requirements.

With law enforcement or fire service as an example, there is a natural progression as to how you ultimately become a leader in one of those organizations. If you want to become a chief of a police department, first, you have to have been a deputy chief or a captain. To be a captain, you had to have been a lieutenant. To be a lieutenant, you have to have been a sergeant. To be a sergeant, you had to be a patrol officer, and to be a patrol officer, you had to pass through the police academy, which has a very physical instruction regimen to it, as well as the intellectual piece. But at the end of the day, there are folks who may have a very strong interest in those professions—and possibly would be fantastic leaders in those professions—but never pursued a career in that field because the entry point 30 years prior had a physical component to it, and the stigma of “not coming up through the ranks” is difficult to overcome.

We somehow have shut the door permanently in those occupations for people with disabilities. I think if you told me early on that I had the opportunity to become a chief officer in the fire service, I probably would have done that before doing what I’m doing now, but that door was never open. We don’t necessarily send fire chiefs and police chiefs from large organizations out into the field to perform those same types of physically reliant functions found in the entry levels of those departments. So, therefore, why couldn’t we have a training program where we allow individuals that have physical disabilities an opportunity to thrive, or to function in a setting that has traditionally not had those doors open to them.

I’d say that we do still have a long way to go in thinking outside of the box, as it relates to what people with disabilities can do both functionally and intellectually in our organizations. We need to take the Americans with Disabilities Act, pull it off the shelf, dust it off, and say, “What do we need to do in 2021? And in 2030? And 2050? We really need to take some of these exemptions off the table and re-evaluate many barriers that still exist, even if they are not readily apparent.

How can we help combat the attitudinal barriers, discrimination, and any exclusion experienced by those who are disabled? How can city and county leaders incorporate that education into their community engagement?

I don’t believe anyone is intentionally trying to exclude or dismiss folks that are different than themselves. Instead I think exclusion is more of an unawareness of those challenges that aren’t a part of your day-to-day life. If a particular struggle is not a part of your daily life, then it’s not something that is front and center as a focus. A broken sidewalk, or an out of service elevator, or lack of available parking might not be as critical for someone who’s able-bodied who can walk or navigate around the barrier, but for those like me, it can change the course of our day and as such demands attention.

As managers, the better job that we can do of thinking outside the box—when it comes to how we develop our programming, how we approach our staff development, how we structure our recruitment efforts, and how we operate our communities for all segments of the population—the better environment we create.

To put it into a different context, if a person with a disability, or any person who is in an underrepresented group, has to constantly ask for special treatment, a couple of things happen. First, you feel embarrassed that the treatment has to be considered “special” because we’re at the point where it should just be common sense. Accessibility and other forms of equity should be something that’s just automatic. It should not have an “affordability” threshold attached in any way. From the design of buildings and public spaces, right down to something simple like planning for meetings, events, and conferences, the needs of those with disabilities across all spectrums should be a key component of equity and inclusion.

Secondly, I don’t like the term “special circumstances.” As a person with a physical challenge, I don’t ever want to look like I’ve “taken advantage” of a situation because that’s never the case. If we were able to continue working as a society toward 100-percent accessibility and 100-percent inclusion, then this topic goes away. We no longer have to talk about it once we reach that status.

There aren’t a lot of people with disabilities that are working as municipal managers for whatever reason. Perhaps that will change over time. Collectively though, we need to be open-minded and allow the “change” conversation to happen and recognize that we do need to train staff on all of those components of inclusion, diversity, and equity. It’s not just placed upon one nationality or skin color or sexual orientation or disability; it’s all of the above. We’re part of a much larger group, a global environment. My hope is that we can make 2021 the year that we find a way to make a lasting change and create as level a playing field as possible.

Advertisement

You may also be interested in