Susan M. Daniels, disability rights activist

October 31, 2011
Susan M. Daniels
Disability rights activist

Susan M. Daniels, 62, whose bout of childhood polio helped inspire her career as a disabilities rights advocate in academia, government and as a private consultant, died of sepsis Oct. 20 at Sibley Memorial Hospital in Washington. She was a District resident.

The death was confirmed by her husband, John Watson.

Starting at age 28, Dr. Daniels spent 10 years as chairwoman of the Louisiana State University medical center’s department of rehabilitation counseling. In that role, she helped train people working with the developmentally disabled in community-based settings.

During that period, she lectured around the world on disability issues and co-wrote a handbook on sex and people with disabilities.

She settled in the Washington area in 1988 and became associate commissioner of the U.S. Department of Education’s Rehabilitation Services Administration.

During the Clinton administration, Dr. Daniels handled a variety of portfolios involving the disabled.

At the Department of Health and Human Services, she was associate commissioner in the Administration on Developmental Disabilities and launched a program to help those with disabilities become homeowners. Later, at the Social Security Administration, she was deputy commissioner in charge of disability programs. She helped shepherd passage of the Ticket to Work and Work Incentive Improvement Act of 1999, which President Bill Clinton signed into law.

After leaving the government, she started a consulting firm focused on public policy development and advocacy.

Susan Marie Daniels was born in New Orleans. She contracted polio at 6 months and spent much of her early life in rehabilitation institutes and hospitals. Her parents encouraged her to keep up with her education in regular elementary and secondary schools.

In 1970, she graduated summa cum laude from Marquette University in Milwaukee. She received a master’s degree in psychology from Mississippi State University in 1972 and a doctorate in psychology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1976.

Dr. Daniels’s honors included the prestigious 2003 Henry B.
Betts Award, created by the Prince Charitable Trusts and the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, to honor her work for the disabled.

Survivors include her husband of 20 years, John Watson of Washington; two stepdaughters, Aurelia Mazzarella of Colonia, N.J., and Sarah Waddingham of Los Angeles; a sister; a brother; and four grandchildren.

— Adam Bernstein

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