The Maryland Daily Record’s Top 100 Women, an annual listing of the state’s most accomplished women in business, politics, education, advocacy, and other fields, is always impressive and eye-opening. The 2022 list is no exception.
However, there is one woman in particular whose light shines a little brighter from the inside out, who doesn’t normally receive the recognition she deserves, and whom many describe as an “unsung hero.”
I’m talking about a woman who devotes her career, time, and treasure as a tireless advocate and policy partner for people with disabilities. She is so effective in crafting state disability policy and so well respected in Annapolis that State Delegate Eric Ebersole (District 12), a retired teacher, sent a glowing recommendation letter to explain why Rachel London, Executive Director of The Maryland Developmental Disabilities Council, should finally receive a dose of recognition.
Delegate Ebersole’s letter went far beyond the typical recommendation one expects from a legislator. The heartfelt letter went into great detail about Rachel’s work on behalf of all adults and children with disabilities in Maryland and how she educates and informs state lawmakers to help them craft more effective legislation to improve the daily lives of people with disabilities. Most recently, she worked with Delegate Ebersole on legislation to limit the use of restraints and seclusion of students in school settings. After multiple previous introductions, the bill (HB 1255/SB 705) was enacted in 2022. Previously, they worked together to require changing facilities for the personal care needs of adults in all renovated or new state buildings.
Rachel was born in Montgomery County, Maryland, and attended public school. She is the daughter of Sharan and Howard London. Her mother was the first Executive Director of The Montgomery County Coalition for the Homeless; her father is an accountant. Everyone who knows Rachel can see she is a true reflection of both parents – compassionate yet practical, super smart and caring, but not overly sentimental.
When you ask Rachel where she gets her selflessness and desire to help others, she immediately says her mom. Sharan London would be the obvious choice, given that her mother transformed Montgomery County’s homeless services in the 1990s and 2000s. She introduced Rachel and her brother David to community service early in their lives. While their dad was traveling for work, her mom would put Rachel and her brother in the car, and they would set out on a mission to help others. In her dad, Rachel said there is a quiet yet strong determination, the persistence that also defines his daughter.
Rachel initially dreamed of attending veterinary school but didn’t love chemistry and biology as much as she loved dogs and horses. Then at age 19, life took an unexpected turn when her dad was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS). She returned home and decided to take a semester off from her undergraduate education and work until she figured out her next steps.
She chose to stay close to her family and finish her degree at the University of Maryland College Park. Three weeks before the LSAT was offered, she decided law school was a better career choice than veterinary school, so she sat for the exam with virtually no preparation. Rachel knew she could handle law school, and she was right. It was the ideal fit for the prolific change maker and advocate she would become.
After her first year in law school, she interned at Disability Rights Maryland. Her work began at Rosewood Center, a state institution for people with intellectual disabilities in Owings Mills, established in 1888.
It was in studying the history of Rosewood that Rachel began to understand how education and advocacy can transform policy, lead to monumental change, and improve life for people with disabilities. She helped expose the civil rights violations and represented many people who lived there. She ultimately would join the long list of advocates before her to recommend the closure of Rosewood. Then came the really hard part: drafting the policy paper on how the closure would occur and how to transition residents to live in the community. Rachel London was the guiding force for the team that wrote Rosewood Center: A Demand for Closure. Almost a year later, on a snowy day in Owings Mills, former Governor O’Malley announced Rosewood would close within 18 months. It was a huge win for the fair and humane treatment of people with developmental disabilities, some of whom had spent most of their lives at Rosewood.
What everyone who knows and admires Rachel London will tell you is that she doesn’t give up. Even when the work is most grueling, she always sees opportunities to educate decision-makers and the broader community on how to proceed and achieve the best outcomes. While the work is emotionally draining, she makes it seem almost effortless. But even, Rachel could not have imagined what she would face in 2009: At age 30, she was the mother of a 2-year-old when she was diagnosed with MS. She could not imagine how she was going to be a parent to a toddler and learn how to navigate a chronic illness. A couple of years later, when she thought she had figured it out, she added another thing to her plate – now she had to navigate life as a single parent and change from part-time to full-time work too.
But the stars aligned for this amazing advocate. She is so good at her work that her boss offered her a full-time position with more pay and a flexible schedule – and this was when flexible schedules were not a thing. While she continued her unwavering advocacy for others, she endured intensive treatment, including drug infusions, but she remained persistent in the pursuit of remission. In 2020, after 11 years of working with her doctors and trying different protocols, she went into remission. No small feat.
She views herself as a “warrior,” and rightly so. Few advocates end up facing challenges similar to those for whom they have been fighting. From her personal battle, Rachel has become a tremendous resource for people who are newly diagnosed with MS. While she makes supporting others with MS a priority, she has also learned to take time for her self-care by hiking, horseback riding, and enjoying nature.
Of all her accomplishments, Rachel is proud of her work on inclusive child care as Director of Children and Family Policy and then Deputy Director at the Maryland Developmental Disabilities Council. This was before her promotion to Executive Director.
In 2012, the council released a white paper that released the results of a survey of 500 families with kids with disabilities. Of those, 78 percent said they had difficulty finding and keeping child care. At the same time, 97 percent of child care providers said they would be willing to provide care but needed support with equipment, education, and training. The good news was this represented a major shift because when Rachel first went around the state talking to providers about caring for children with disabilities, executive staff would say, “We don’t serve those kids.”
She worked very closely with the Maryland State Department of Education on a white paper with more than 22 recommendations for childcare providers, things like required training on inclusion and provisions in the Americans with Disabilities Act. Five years later, the state of Maryland agreed to put the recommendations into regulations requiring that all child care providers receive training. More than 14,000 providers did so, and eventually, national child care companies shared the training based on the Maryland model. The training is now being revised and updated, and translated into different languages. By 2020, eight years after the report was released, all 22 recommendations had been implemented.
In 2017, based on her work and the work of the Maryland Developmental Disabilities Council and others, the state developed a dispute resolution process for parents whose children were discriminated against based on their disability and were unable to receive services. Rachel’s mission is not only to advocate for fair treatment but also advocate for funding solutions to ensure services are available for those with disabilities. She also continuously works on “plain language” guidelines to ensure everyone understands the services available.
Perhaps the most telling story about inclusion involves Rachel’s son, Dylan. Rachel was taking him to visit a friend from school for a birthday party when Dylan realized his friend might not be able to bring her iPad to the party. He wanted to make sure she had it, but like many parents, Rachel told her son she could probably stand to be without it for the party. His response surprised her.
“No, she can’t, mom. I won’t be able to communicate with my friend.” The friend was a young girl who needed her iPad to communicate. Dylan never mentioned her disability because he was raised to include all kids in his friend group, so it wasn’t a big deal to him.
Beyond physical barriers, Rachel is always thinking about other ways to improve life for people with disabilities. This includes fair wages for workers with disabilities. In 2016, she worked closely with people with disabilities and other organizations to draft legislation and advocated successfully to eliminate Maryland’s sub-minimum wage for people with disabilities. In 2020, against the backdrop of COVID, the phase-out was complete making Maryland the second state to eliminate the sub-minimum wage for people with disabilities.
In another example of how she has gone above and beyond to fully understand and communicate the challenges of the people she advocates for, Rachel has been to every prison in Maryland. That’s because she worked with Tom Perez – yes, that Tom Perez, former head of the National Democratic Party, U.S. Department of Labor Secretary under President Obama, and most recent candidate for Governor – who was her law school professor and encouraged her work helping inmates who had fallen through the cracks. She is now continuing that work with the Developmental Disabilities Council because so many inmates are people with disabilities, and training and education are needed to advocate for this population in our court and prison systems.
Rachel believes as a society we should start from the framework of having high expectations of what is possible for all people, including people with disabilities. She points out that we all want the same things: a happy life; quality health care; the ability to take care of ourselves and our loved ones; and a supportive, inclusive community. Why should anyone be left out?
To learn more about the Maryland Developmental Disabilities Council and its life-changing work, please go to www.md-council.org.