Susan Is Our Mentor

A 70th Birthday Gift for Susan M. Daniels

Image result for susan m daniels, hall of fame
Photo of Susan Daniels wearing her red hat.

As we prepare to announce the Class of 2018 Inductees to the Susan M. Daniels Disability Mentoring Hall of Fame, we take pause to honor the Hall of Fame’s namesake on what would have been her 70th birthday. Rather than list Susan’s accomplishments, we have asked some of her friends and colleagues to tell their story of how Susan affected their lives. If you would like to add your story, you’ll find directions at the end of the post.

Also, please register to join us for a webinar on Wednesday, October 24th celebrating Susan and the new Mentoring Hall of Fame inductees!

Happy birthday, Susan!

Dr. Susan M. Daniels was Deputy Commissioner for Disability and Income Security Programs at the Social Security Administration. She was responsible for the direction and policy governing the Social Security retirement, survivors, and disability programs — Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI.) She led the policy and program management staff at SSA headquarters, Office of Hearings and Appeals, and a disability determination process in 54 state agencies with an administrative budget of more than $1 billion with over 11,000 employees. Dr. Daniels had over 20 years of experience in leadership positions in management and administration. She was a nationally recognized spokesperson and opinion leader on disability policy. In roles ranging from teacher to administrator, from consultant to citizen, from researcher to public speaker, she represented the true potential of people with disabilities and illuminated the barriers inhibiting their full independence, social integration and productive participation in American life. (from the National Forum on Careers in the Arts for People with Disabilities)

Marie Strahan

Susan Daniels on the right wearing a black hat, red winter coat and tiger-striped scarf with Marie Strahan on the left leaning in wearing a black winter coat, both smiling at the bill signing for the Ticket to Work and Work Incentives Improvement Act, December 17, 1999

Susan Marie Daniels, Ph.D. left us in October 2011, seven years ago this month, but for those who knew and loved her she remains a profound presence in our lives. She was, as they say, a force of nature — a devoted friend, an extraordinary mentor, a trusted and honest colleague, and a passionate lifelong advocate for people with disabilities. But, the thing I remember most about our friend was the remarkable impact she had on political leaders and experienced and learned professionals who happened to find themselves in her circle of influence.

Susan (no one called her Dr. Daniels) managed to recruit the most unlikely allies to her cause; staunch conservative policy-makers, highly regarded economists, senior insurance actuaries, White House budget executives, insurance researchers, and corporate CEO’s. She made them her partners in advocacy for employment opportunities for people with disabilities.

Susan was at once charming, deferential, respectful, and in awe of their knowledge and expertise, and she told them so.

Susan was at once charming, deferential, respectful, and in awe of their knowledge and expertise, and she told them so.

She studied their work and became proficient in social insurance economics and actuarial science, she could hold her own with researchers from a variety of Ivy League decades long Medicare/Medicaid and Social Security research projects, and she was amazingly adept and completely sincere at making each and every one of them feel as if they were saving the world, making each one a hero of her cause. She convinced hundreds of hardline, old-school executives and researchers that expanding employment services and work incentives for people with disabilities was an essential legislative goal.

She adopted Harry Truman’s Washington mantra wholeheartedly — It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit. — handing out awards and accolades to everyone she came in contact with that might help her achieve her goal, including:

  • Commissioner Ken Apfel, Social Security Administration
  • Chief Actuary Steve Goss, Social Security Administration
  • Secretary Donna Shalala, Department of Health and Human Services
  • Senators Dole, Jeffords and Kennedy
  • Congressmen Dingle, Hoyer and Range
  • And, of course, her boss, President William J. Clinton

Many tout the Ticket to Work and Work Incentive Improvement Act of 1999 as her greatest accomplishment and rightly so. Today the Ticket Act programs have served hundreds of thousands of people with disabilities and have provided Medicare/Medicaid expansions to workers with disabilities all over the country. But, I believe her most remarkable work was the six years of one-on-one tenacious professional outreach that convinced countless seasoned and experienced professionals within the confines of the Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, Congress, the White House, and the Federal budget systems to support her proposals. The Ticket Act received overwhelming bi-partisan support with a 98–2 vote in the Senate, and a 412–9 in the House.

It still amazes me that she was able to pull it off, brilliantly.

Rayna Aylward

You meet a lot of people in your life, you remember some, you keep just a precious few in vivid memory. For me, Susan Daniels was one of those very few. Though she died seven years ago, Susan remains very much alive in my heart and mind. I often feel her presence, especially when I face a big decision or need encouragement.

You see, Susan was my mentor. She was also a dear friend and cherished colleague, but it’s her role as mentor that remains most strongly with me.

Susan’s mentoring rarely came across as formal advice. She never said “You should do this or not do that.” Rather, she’d ask a surprising question…How will you feel if you do that? What’s the worst that can happen if you don’t? It’s as if she tuned into my own inner wisdom, helping me to focus on what truly mattered. I always felt clearer and smarter after being with Susan.

It’s as if she tuned into my own inner wisdom, helping me to focus on what truly mattered. I always felt clearer and smarter after being with Susan.

Susan modeled her life principles rather than preaching them, and one of them was to Have Fun! You could be dealing with an existential challenge, but she’d find a way to spark a smile and lift your mood. When she herself faced challenges, Susan radiated grit and spirit. She was serious about life, but carried herself lightly. It was always about YOU, not her.

Thanks to Susan’s gentle nudges and her shining example, I’ve made some risky but ultimately satisfying career moves and developed my own principles of navigating the world. And yes, I’ve had a lot of fun in the process. Perhaps Susan’s greatest gift to me is that she is my lifetime mentor, and she is always at my side.

Susan IS my mentor!

Susan and the left and Rayna on the right, both wearing party hats on New Year’s Eve.

Barbara Butz

Susan — My friend and mentor

Susan was a lot of things. She was smart and accomplished when I met her in the late 1990s. She was finishing a stint at the Social Security Administration as the Deputy Commissioner…she was committed to doing good and making the most of each day…. but most of all she was FUN! Fun to be with, looking for joy and bringing out the best in each situation.

We became partners and developed a national consulting firm that became PolicyWorks, Inc. which is now doing business across the country spreading the power of peer mentoring through s partnership with the Workforce Innovation Technical Assistance Center.

Susan made this work a joy. We worked hard and loved it!

The other important gift that Susan gave me was that she shared with me a circle of other women that she had mentored and who had mentored her. It was a strong circle of committed, loving and caring women who accepted me into this circle and changed my life.

Years have passed but in October we reach out to each other and share memories as we did this weekend… about Susan and how she continues to live in each of us…. and what a gift she was in our lives.

Bryon Macdonald

Bryon Macdonald (before he set sail for the other side of the world!)

I was one of those “outside advocates” as some called us that Susan needed and government needs to further policy change. As she said, often:

“Bryon, we have no problems in DC, everything is fine here. If you don’t bring us a problem, DC doesn’t think there is one.”

We had a hundred one-on-one chats if we had one; but, the most telling advice she gave me that can help us today is the show stopper she said to me once: “Bryon, I am not a very nice person.” It was a conversation stopper.

She said that to me with all the steely-eyed conviction many know of her. She meant it, and she meant to tell me something as she is still one of the key mentors in my life.

We disagreed on policy at times, and surely not enough that caused problems — as she and I worked hard together along with about 500 others to get the Ticket Act through Congress.

Susan was telling me that it is mission critical sometimes to be tough, stand ground, and be unpleasant if you want to move the ball in DC. Well, this short story is that that mentoring applies now more than ever.

To end this at the beginning … after I first met Susan in 1995 at the Social Security Administration Office in Richmond, CA, out of the blue she sent me a hand written note from DC on small stationary with her name on the cover in fancy print — Susan M. Daniels, Ph.D. On the inside a hand written note, “Bryon, Let’s Continue the Dialog, Susan.” We sure did.

Submitted by Bryon on 10/24 from the Bella Serina in Westhaven, Auckland, New Zealand.

John Kemp

Susan asked me to join her in a panel discussion before a national gathering of architects in Washington, DC one beautiful DC day. As she spoke, she was seeking empathy and understanding from the designers of our built environment, and of course, she figured out a way to obtain these. First, she asked if everyone felt comfortable in their chairs at their round tables; why, yes, they were, they all responded. And, can you hear me well, with my use of this microphone? Well, of course, we can! (You see what’s coming by now). And, she asked if everyone could see here in the ballroom with the beautiful chandeliers above. Of course, they responded.

Well, then, try something with me, would you, she implored. Yes, what is it? Would you please stand up if you can and remain standing for as long as I speak. Urrrrr, okay. Now, I’m asking the hotel to turn off the lights while you remain standing. And, now, I’m getting rid of this microphone….and the room was quiet but for her very muffled, low-toned remarks that no one could understand. And, she went on telling a story that no one could hear, and there was growing bewilderment among the A’s:)!

Welcome to the world of accommodations, when she resumed speaking with her mic everyone was still in the dark and standing. It’s certainly easier to hear me when you have amplification, isn’t it? And, let’s turn on the lights, as it’s so much easier to see each other. Finally, she asked whether they were ready to be seated, and oh yes, 20 mins was just soooo stressful! They sat down, with her permission.

Susan firmly guided them through the journey they’d just taken, and more importantly, she explained the why. “I brought my chair with me, but the cost for this meeting had to pay for all of YOU to be able to sit. Imagine how much the AIA could have saved if there were no costs for chairs, or tables, or the lights or the sound amplification?” You non-disabled people are expensive compared to us with disabilities”, she told them.

She stayed in character for an uncomfortably long period, not saying anything….tic toc, tic toc….finally, someone said, “OK, I think we get it. Everyone needs something or somebody to thrive or just to survive in this world. We’re all different.”

She stayed in character for an uncomfortably long period, not saying anything….tic toc, tic toc….finally, someone said, “OK, I think we get it. Everyone needs something or somebody to thrive or just to survive in this world. We’re all different.” She smiled and said, “My work is done”, and she left the stage to a thunderous applause.

That’s our Susan, the extraordinary Mentor.

Humbly restated,

Derek Shields

I have learned the greatest lessons when I have least expected it. One of these lessons was taught to me through a series of meetings with Susan Daniels, former Deputy Commissioner for Disability and Income Security Programs at the Social Security Administration under the Clinton Administration.

Here’s how I recall it. Susan asked me to quarterly meetings at her apartment in Washington, DC. At first I thought I was being accommodating — easier to meet there than handling access to my non-metro accessible office location. In time, however, I learned it had little to do with being easier — and more to do with ensuring a casual location. A home is where the heart is after all. And, at these luncheons, I would get to know her family, her business partners, and, most importantly, Susan herself.

I learned a lot about disability policy and we strategized about how to get our work done in recruitment and outreach to the nation. She also used the time and experiences to teach me the following lessons, which I value above all else:

  1. Before jumping into work, get to know folks.
  2. It’s proper to get to know folks over food (and at times drinks).
  3. Good food is VERY important (she was from New Orleans …. we shared some terrific mushroom soup each fall).
  4. Laughter is a critical ingredient, too.
  5. Listen to young people, they have much to offer.
  6. Mentoring is both informal and formal in nature.

Susan taught me before jumping to the task, it was important to develop relationships with individuals to best understand how to achieve mutual success at work and in life. She brought me to her home to do this but it’s not about the location itself, rather more of the opening of one’s mind and heart and asking others in. As the German author and poet Christian Morganstern wrote, “home is not where you live but where they understand you.”

“Home is not where you live but where they understand you.”

Susan understood this and used our conversations to help me understand the importance of understanding and acceptance of others before all else.

(This was previously posted in April 2017 #DisabilityMentors Blog Post)

Picture: Derek and Susan having dinner in Pittsburgh, PA. Susan is admonishing Derek for using his Smartphone during dinner. I think she said: “Derek, put that damn thing away and enjoy some good conversation.”

Susan: In Her Own Words

After leaving the Social Security Administration, Susan continued to be active on the national and international stage. As principal of Daniels & Associates (D&A), she led projects focused on public policy development and advocacy, disability and employment and organizational development. She advised the government of India on developing a social insurance program for people with disabilities and consulted with the New Zealand government on rehabilitation and social insurance.

As a founder and board member of PolicyWorks, she expanded the work of Daniels & Associates to the nonprofit arena. Her contribution and legacy to the Ticket to Work Program will live on through the work of a team of experts she brought together to design, build and implement her conceptualizations of electronic tools to assist service providers and workers with disabilities. Another pillar of her legacy is the work D&A and PolicyWorks are achieving with college students and recent graduates on Social Security benefits, Susan’s commitment to these young professionals will be continued through the efforts of the organizations she founded and through the Mentorship Fund created in her name.

Thanks to PolicyWorks for posting the below videos and for being steward’s of Susan’s legacy!

Susan Daniels speaking at NASI 2009 Social Security Academy for Interns Meeting (Part 1)

Image of Susan Daniels wearing white coat with green shirt, smiling with microphone in front of her.

Susan Daniels speaking at NASI 2009 Social Security Academy for Interns Meeting (Part 2)

Image of Susan Daniels wearing white coat with green shirt, speaking into microphone with her right hand adjusting microphone stand.

Susan Daniels speaking at the 2007 Kay Disability Policy Forum

Susan Daniels wearing black business suit speaking at the Kay Disability Forum.

Susan Daniels, bottom row on the right, with friends. Susan loved her Dinner Belles and Disability Divas!

Add Your Susan Story!

Do you have a story about Susan you would like to share? In honor of Susan’s 70th birthday, the National Disability Mentoring Coalition will publish your story. It could include Susan’s impact on you; or just share a fond memory. Please email Your Susan Story to!

The Susan M. Daniels Disability Mentoring Hall of Fame was established to honor those who are making a significant difference in the lives of youth and adults with disabilities through mentoring and to raise awareness about the importance of mentoring for individuals with disabilities.

The Hall of Fame”s namesake, Susan M. Daniels, devoted her life to improving the lives of others with disabilities. As a person with a disability who achieved enormous professional and personal success, she had significant impact as a senior policy maker, as an inspirational speaker and teacher, and as a devoted mentor to hundreds of individuals.

In 2015, the National Disability Mentoring Coalition named 25 outstanding leaders as the first inductees into the Susan M. Daniels Disability Mentoring Hall of Fame — 25 champions marking the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. These inductees were selected for their demonstrated commitment to mentoring and for their impact on improving the lives of people with disabilities.

The public has been invited to nominate individuals and organizations for the Hall of Fame every year. A total of 66 individuals and 8 organizations have been inducted in since 2015 (not including the Class of 2018 inductees, which will be announced on October 24th, Susan’s birthday.). You can find the full list of 2015, 2016, and 2017 honorees on their respective Hall of Fame pages.


Inclusion through Mentoring

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