Brett gets the call from White House

Long-time Dorchester resident and former state representative James T. Brett has been named chairman of the President’s Committee for People with Intellectual Disabilities, a panel on which he has served for almost a decade.

Brett, who is the president and CEO of the New England Council, said he wants the 15-member committee to focus on a specific number of issues. While he said he’d like to wait until the council’s first meeting June 15 to decide what those issues will be, he expressed interest in working with programs that help people with intellectual disabilities find jobs.

“People have already called me, parents have called me, asked me to be aware of certain issues,”
he said.

“Seventy percent of the people with disabilities who want to work are unemployed,” said Brett. That number is so high, he said, for a multitude of reasons: People with disabilities are unsure where to look for work, businesses can be reluctant to hire them; and, if they find a job, getting to and from work can be a problem without a driver’s license.

“That figure is too high, and it’s always bothered me,” Brett said.

Before joining the New England Council in 1996, Brett was a representative for 15 years. He grew up in Savin Hill as one of six siblings, the oldest of whom was born with an intellectual disability.

“When my mother had my brother Jack back in the 1930s, the doctor advised her that he should not remain at home because he’s not going to lead a normal life,” Brett said. “They recommended that my mother put him in some kind of institution. They also said to her that she may not want to have any more children. … But she said ‘No, he’s coming home, and I’m going to have more children.’ ”

Jack, who died in 2010, was a role model to Brett when he was growing up, he said. “He taught me so much about disabilities each and every day,” Brett said. “He became my teacher. When I got into politics, I said I’d become an advocate for people with disabilities like my brother Jack.”

Brett served on the Governor’s Commission on Intellectual Disability under Jane Swift, Mitt Romney, and Deval Patrick. He joined the President’s Committee under former President George W. Bush, and continued his tenure under President Obama.

The late Sen. Ted Kennedy nominated Brett for the position of committee president before his death in 2009. Sen. John Kerry and Gov. Patrick also advocated for him, he said. Brett was interviewed and vetted a number of times over the last few years before officially accepting the position.

He said the new position will not affect his current position with the New England Council, a Boston-based business policy group. Under previous leadership, the disabilities council met quarterly, he said. Though he is unsure how often he will convene meetings, he said he will use his vacation days to travel to Washington.

“If it meant a week in Cape Cod or a week working in D.C. on disability issues, it’s a no-brainer,” he said. “I’d rather be in D.C.”