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Name: Swenson, Sue
Current Position: Previous Acting Assistant Secretary

Sue Swenson, a long-time advocate for the disabled, accepted the top leadership post of the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (OSERS) in May 2016. She is also chair of the U.S. Access Board, which develops guidelines for accessibility and accessible design for the disabled.


Swenson was born April 23, 1953, in Red Wing, Minn., to John and Eleanor Dahl. She graduated from Red Wing Central High School in 1971 and went on to attend the University of Chicago. Swenson earned her bachelor’s degree in humanities there in 1975 and a master’s in the same subject in 1977.  She then proceeded to earn an MBA from the University of Minnesota in 1986.


Swenson’s background is in marketing; she was marketing manager for the Minnesota Heart and Lung Institute from 1987 to 1989 and held a similar position for Barr Engineering, an environmental consulting firm, from 1990 to 1995.


But Swenson became interested in the plight of the disabled after the second of her three sons, Charlie, was found not long after his birth in 1982 to be profoundly disabled. Swenson later began learning how to advocate for her son’s needs and started to work for the rights of all disabled. She testified in 1993 before a U.S. Senate subcommittee during hearings on the reauthorization of the Developmental Disabilities Assistance and Bill of Rights Act, talking about her family and the challenges they faced.


Three years later, Swenson was in Washington again, this time working with that subcommittee as a Kennedy Fellow in the Senate. There, she helped form the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.


Following her year-long fellowship, she returned to Minnesota as an associate with the University of Minnesota’s Institute on Community Integration. In 1998, she joined the federal Department of Health and Human Services as commissioner of the Administration on Developmental Disabilities.


Swenson moved to the Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Foundation, which focuses on those with disabilities, as its executive director beginning in 2001. Two years later, she was named associate executive director of The Arc, one of the largest organizations dedicated to helping those with developmental disabilities. In 2005, Swenson was named executive director.


In 2010, Swenson returned to federal service as deputy assistant secretary for OSERS, which works to ensure access to education, employment and community living for the developmentally disabled. Swenson retains that post while she serves as Acting Assistant Secretary.


In addition to Charlie, who died in 2013, Swenson and her husband, Bill, have two other sons: Will and Eric.

-Steve Straehley


To Learn More:

Testimony to the Senate Subcommittee on Disability Policy Hearing Regarding Reauthorization of the Developmental Disabilities Assistance and Bill of Rights Act (pdf)

Official Biography

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