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Becoming a Disability Advocate

A Conversation with Donna Meltzer: A Role Model for Disability Advocates

Donna Meltzer and RespectAbility Fellows standing and seated in a posed photograph, smiling for the camera

Donna Meltzer with RespectAbility Fellows and Staff

Rockville, Md., June 29 – Donna Meltzer, the CEO of the National Association of Councils on Developmental Disabilities (NACDD), is not an ordinary disability rights advocate. In fact, it was an internship with Congress that opened her eyes to a new world of activism. Since her internship, Meltzer worked for Rep. Tony Coelho, the father of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Along with experience in numerous other positions within the disability field, Meltzer shared a wealth of information with the Fellows and staff at RespectAbility. We learned about the history of the ADA, as well as NACDD’s efforts in the evolving disability sector.

In 1963, President John F. Kennedy signed a law that established one of the first laws for individuals with developmental disabilities. The goal of the Mental Retardation (MR) Facilities and Community Health Centers Act (PL 88-164) was to build facilities to train people to better support people with MR and to conduct research.

NACDD’s Role in Disability Rights 

Donna seated at head of brown table with Fellows seated around the other sides listening to her

Donna Meltzer speaking to RespectAbility Fellows

Founded in 2013, the NACDD is a national nonprofit organization and remains nonpartisan in its efforts. Funded by the federal government, it is the umbrella support system for 56 Councils, one for each state or territory. Each council is responsible for maintaining and addressing federal public policy issues in terms of budget and appropriations, as well as discussing current urgencies, such as Medicaid, employment and healthcare.

Meltzer outlined several missions that NACDD strives to accomplish every year: Play a considerable role in working with the governors and state legislators. The Developmental Disability (DD) Council in each state encompasses the diverse influence and relevance of disability. The “authentic voice,” as Meltzer calls it, comes from including both individuals with disabilities and stakeholders from the Department of Education, Labor and Security. In the DD Council, everyone comes together to talk about the greatest needs of the disability community.

Every council within NACDD has a unique set of priorities. For example, New York City (versus a city in Alaska) will require different accommodations for their respective disability communities.

Medicaid is on the national stage as disability activists fight against potential major cuts. National trends must be identified and examined by using white papers and by developing a community of practice, Meltzer said.

Four adults standing in a semi circle having a conversation with other young adults in the background having a different conversation. A RespectAbility banner is off to the side.

Donna Meltzer speaking with RespectAbility Fellow James Trout, President Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi and Policy Director Philip Kahn-Pauli

The information that Meltzer presented to RespectAbility was incredibly relevant; she described how a federally funded disability system operates. Meltzer also serves on the Board of Advisors of RespectAbility. The Fellows are grateful that she shared her extensive experience. We are inspired by her work!


RespectAbility is a nonprofit organization fighting stigmas and advancing opportunities for and with people with disabilities. Learn more about the National Leadership Program and apply for the next cohort! Contact for more information.



Meet the Author

Sneha Dave

Sneha Dave is a Policy Fellow. A sophomore at Indiana University, she is the founder of the Crohn’s and Colitis Teen Times, a nonprofit organization with a mission of providing support to teenagers battling Inflammatory Bowel Diseases.

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