Power Couple Serves Disability Community

Written by Annie Beckmann
October 6, 2015

John Evans, '84, has advocated for those with disabilities since 1977, when he was 18 and a student at the Washington School for the Deaf in Vancouver, Wash.

That was the year the school sent him and several of his classmates to Berkeley to join a major protest demonstration over the lack of federal accessibility laws for people with disabilities?a first opportunity to leap into a national political issue with personal implications.

"I said then and there I wanted to make a difference in society by helping to remove the stigma and rampant discrimination faced by those of us living with a disability," he says. "And that's how I found my way to SU, where I was told that public administration and government was a good place to start. Here I am today, still chipping away at it."

Even before he became a public administration student at Seattle University, Evans discovered an early ally in Kathy West, MPA '85, already a community-minded advocate who worked at the Hearing, Speech & Deafness Center near campus and volunteered her time to support the deaf community. With a mutual passion for public service, they would soon marry and pursue compelling careers in vocational rehabilitation (VR).

Collectively, this couple has spent more than 70 years focused on their life's mission to be champions for disability issues and inspire others to join their quest. Evans retired in July as Washington's VR administrator in employer relations for the Department of Social and Health Services. Today, West-Evans is director of business relations for the Council of State Administrators of Vocational Rehabilitation, a national organization of chief administrators for public rehab agencies that serve those with physical, sensory and mental disabilities. The national VR program serves a million people with disabilities.

It was serendipity that John and Kathy found one another. When she was young, Kathy had hearing loss from repeated ear infections. She was labeled as having behavior problems in school until she had surgery to correct issues with her middle ear. As a result, though, Kathy developed a special interest in those who were deaf. That?s what led her not only to her career but also to a local deaf club meeting in the late 1970s.

"She showed up wanting to help our club raise funds for the deaf girls/boys baseball team," John recalls. "Everyone was like, what's with this hearing person wanting to raise money to help us deaf people. She must either be a new interpreter wanting to break into the community or she has lost her way. We soon learned that she was neither. She wanted to belong, to help and contribute to our efforts. I found that special. Thirty-seven years later and she hasn't changed a bit."

They both have tremendous respect for each other's drive and accomplishments.

"I am fortunate to have a life partner who inspires and motivates me every day," Kathy says.

The two have had opportunities to work together on countless local, state and national initiatives for most of their careers. One of these is a partnership with the Lowe's home improvement chain, which hired more than 550 people with disabilities last year. Beth Butler, manager of employee relations in central services at Lowe's, has great things to say about John and Kathy.

"If there was a power couple in the disability employment industry, it would be John and Kathy. Their passion for serving the disability community coupled with their commitment to serving employers eager to build an inclusive work environment that is open to everyone is an unstoppable combination," says Butler.

Among other national partners are Safeway, Microsoft, Starbucks and Nordstrom. Colleen Fukui-Sketchley, corporate diversity affairs director for Nordstrom, Inc., says, "Kathy and John have been valuable resources to us since the early '90s. We are very fortunate to have partnered with them over the years on a number of programs and creating solutions that have helped us to better serve the needs of our diverse customers."

In all, more than 2,000 Washington businesses hired those with significant disabilities last year, according to John.

John and Kathy help to create company cultures that respond to those with disabilities. Too often, Kathy says, society has taught people not to ask questions about disabilities.

They both agree Seattle U was the right fit and provided them with a solid foundation for career success.

In his studies at Seattle Central College, John became familiar with Seattle U. In fact, he and other deaf students lived on the seventh floor of Campion Residence Hall at Seattle U while they attended community college nearby.

When he transferred to Seattle U, John thinks he may have been the university's first deaf student. From a very early age, he wore strong hearing aids to help with his speech development while enhancing his communication skills with fluency in American Sign Language.

There were some rough spots, certainly. John arrived at the university in the era of the five-pound Telecommunication Device for the Deaf (TDD), not the handheld text phone that today means effective and equal communication, he says. He could speak very well, yet communicating with fellow students was a lot more challenging.

Seattle U provided an FM listening system, a transmitter worn by the instructor and a receiver worn by the student. This enhanced the clarity of communication and allowed me to control the volume while sitting in the front row of each class and lip-reading. They also provided sign language interpreters and note takers.

Pediatric audiology had been Kathy's focus for undergraduate studies at the University of Washington. She worked for the Hearing, Speech and Deafness Center to explore her options before graduate school. That's when she saw the impact of public policy and learned about the Master's in Public Administration program at Seattle U.

"Everything I learned I applied to what I did every day. The quality of the education, how personal it was and the emphasis on public service made it a great experience that I have used to impact policy through my work at the state and federal level," she says.

Kathy now directs business relations for the membership organization of 80 public VR directors. She provides leadership and support to the National Employment Team (NET) of VR business consultants across the country and in the territories. The NET works with corporate America to design strategic plans and provide business services and talent. Kathy collaborated with partners to develop an online Talent Acquisition Portal and was part of a team that helped craft new legislative language that defines VR's role with business customers.

John led Washington state's efforts to engage businesses and employers in hiring those with disabilities. This year John won one of Sen. Patty Murray?s coveted Golden Tennis Shoe Awards, celebrating a select few of Washington state's unsung community heroes who?ve accomplished something extraordinary in service to others.

John says he will continue to work in this field in some capacity going forward. His drive spills over into other activities as well. He especially likes to encourage independence among students with disabilities, which he does regularly at a youth leadership forum and a summer camp for deaf students.

The couple shares a vision and devotion that's uncommon. They both have advanced the public VR system and promoted the integration, independence and employment of this segment of society.

"We love what we do for society and are each other's pillar of strength, support and determination," John says.

This article first appeared in the Fall 2015 issue of Seattle University Magazine.