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Steve Bartlett: Learning to Play on the Field

Steve Bartlett with RespectAbility staff and Fellows

Steve Bartlett with RespectAbility staff and Fellows

Rockville, Maryland, June 14, 2018 – During the Fellows Speakers Series, RespectAbility’s National Leadership Program Fellows had the opportunity to speak with former Texas Congressman and former mayor of Dallas, Steve Bartlett. He was truly inspirational to listen to because his experience advocating for people with disabilities is extensive. Bartlett served as a principal author of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and worked on the President’s Commission on Excellence in Special Education, and the Select Education Subcommittee.

Bartlett brought a unique Bring Your Own Agenda (BYOA) style to this session. Fellows and staff had the chance to ask Bartlett any questions about his life or politics, or for career advice. In all his answers and advice, Bartlett emphasized the common theme of goal setting, which is having a clear vision for what you would like to achieve, then creating steps to help you get there and always be willing to change your steps along the way.

“The hardest thing to do, and the easiest, is to just start.”

Steve Bartlett and Mannela Iparraguirre

Steve Bartlett and Mannela Iparraguirre

Bartlett’s advice was to “just start.” Pursuing a career in any field is difficult and sometimes all that young people need to do is just start. This does not mean that you must start with your dream job, but maybe simply volunteering with an organization you are passionate about and would want to work for in the future. For example, volunteering for a campaign of a candidate you are interested in is a great way to start a career in politics. Bartlett always had an end goal in mind and was willing to be flexible to achieve his ultimate goal—advocating for his constituents. From his start in politics, Bartlett was able to start small and grow his goals along the way.

“Set your goal and change things to help you achieve your goal.”

There are many good roads to Rome, Bartlett said. Each road is different, and individuals should be prepared to adjust their plans but must always keep their end goal in mind. As we move through life, Bartlett expressed we must be willing to adapt and take a new road if the one we’re on is not taking us to our desired destination. Throughout his incredible career advocating for people with disabilities, Bartlett stated that he started small in the smallest committee in Congress but then became ranking member and was able to have a substantial influence.

“Democracy is not a spectator sport.”

In any sports arena, if there are no players on the field the game will never start and the audience will become frustrated—similar to the sport of democracy. In his last words of the session, Bartlett encouraged the Fellows not to let democracy become a spectator sport, but rather something that we should all participate in. Become involved in campaigns and be the voice you want heard. Democracy is meant to represent the people, and if we are not participating in it, then how will it be able to reflect us, he said.

As the Fellows soon start their young professional lives, the words from Bartlett could not have been more relevant. Reminiscing about the challenges he faced when starting his long career was both inspirational and comforting. The notion of staying motivated and dedicated to a specific plan gives a sense of control, but the willingness to change the plan without becoming discouraged gives room for chance and circumstances. The Fellows now ask each other whether they have a plan for the next five years! Or ten!


RespectAbility is a nonprofit organization fighting stigmas and advancing opportunities for and with people with disabilities. This summer, 11 Fellows had the opportunity to learn from a variety of guest speakers. Learn more about the National Leadership Program and apply for the next cohort! Contact for more information.



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Mannela Iparraguirre
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