Washington Lawyer - May 2017 - 21

information about the condition be made available to health care providers so that they can
give families a better understanding of the disability. That May, Senate Bill 654 was signed by
Governor Martin O'Malley, another victory for
Sachs, her fellow advocates, and their families.

Sachs's accomplishments as a volunteer advocate
did not go unnoticed. Soon after the bill was
signed, the National Down Syndrome Society
(NDSS) asked her to join its staff as its vice president for advocacy and public policy. By then,
Sachs had given birth to Talia, their third child -
a "full house" as she describes it - and hadn't
worked in the conventional sense for about a
decade. "To be honest, I wasn't looking for a job.
I was happy in my role as a stay-at-home mom
but also as a volunteer advocate."
She was happy, but she couldn't say no to her
"dream job," which would give her an opportunity to not only better the life of her own child
but also to influence policy on a systemic level.
"It sounds very cliché, but in my former law job,
I enjoyed the work but I never really felt like
I was making the world a better place. At this
job, I could really see on a daily basis the difference that we were making in the lives of people
with Down syndrome and their families," Sachs
says. For her, progress at NDSS wasn't marked by
how many hours she's billed, but by how many
bills she helped pass.
The transition, though, was a big adjustment
for her family. Mom was no longer the classroom
parent organizing a special needs awareness

program for the elementary school. Mom was
no longer able to be the manager of the soccer
team or the Brownie Troop leader. Mom would
get stuck in late meetings, sometimes unable
to pick up the kids or make dinner.
Mom was, however, the one fighting for what
she believed in. "I'm so proud of you," Jonah, now
13 years old, will often say. "You're changing the
While Sachs left NDSS in March, she remains
a national leader advocating for policies that
improve the quality of life and create more
opportunities for people with Down syndrome.
She's helped implement the Achieving a Better
Life Experience (ABLE) Act, which passed in 2014
and allows for tax-exempt 529-type accounts
for people with disabilities to accumulate assets
without jeopardizing their public benefits,
including Medicaid and Supplemental Security
Income. Currently, ABLE bills have been passed
in 48 states and the District of Columbia - and
Sachs has worked to help pass nearly all of them.
One of Sachs's proudest moments occurred last
June when Ohio launched the country's first
ABLE program. Now, there are more than 18 ABLE
programs available, with more to come. "ABLE
was one of the first initiatives for which I started
advocating on the federal level when Leah was
a baby," Sachs says. "It is very powerful to see
these accounts finally available nationwide -
they are real game changers for many people
with disabilities." Sachs plans to open a Maryland
ABLE account for Leah when the state launches
its own ABLE program next fall.
The work Sachs has been able to accomplish wouldn't
have been possible without a flexible work schedule.

Heather Sachs

"Particularly for parents
who are reconsidering their
job or looking for another
path, my advice would be
to broaden your ideas of
what you can use your legal
background for. You don't
necessarily have to be
practicing law to make
a difference."

"At this point in my life, I would not want to go
into an office for a 9 to 5 job," Sachs says. "Or
a 9 to 10 [p.m.] job!" she adds, laughing. While
at NDSS, she was able to leave her home office
in the middle of the day to chaperone a zoo trip
for her daughter and wrap up work later at night
when the kids are in bed.
But her work-life balance could and did slip,
usually every couple months, Sachs says.
"Unfortunately, the reality is when the balance
goes off balance, it's always tipped in the way
of work because you can't say, 'Oh, wait, I'm not
going to do this project' or 'I'm not going to file
this bill in by the deadline because soccer season
is coming up.'" For Sachs, it was cyclical - a few
weeks of "very intense pressure to do my job well
and also continue to be a good mom" - but it
always settled down.
"I do policy work, so very much like when you're
a litigator and you can't control what your court
dates are, you have to prepare for that," Sachs
says. "With policy work, when Congress is in
session and things need to get done, that's my
focus. My schedule is not my own during those
times." But those occasionally crazy hours are
worth it because she loves advocating for the
Down syndrome community.
"I'm paid many times over in the results that I'm
seeing," Sachs says. She urges other parents of
children with special needs who want to work to
find something about which they are truly passionate. "You have to pursue something that is for
you, that makes you feel fulfilled as a person and
a professional other than just being a [parent] of
your child with special needs."
And her law school loans did not go to waste.
"The skills I learned in law school and particularly
on the job come in handy every single day," she
says, talking about the complicated legislation
she works on in her advocacy work. She's able
to read and understand it a lot faster than people
without a legal background. "Particularly for
parents who are reconsidering their job or
looking for another path, my advice would be
to broaden your ideas of what you can use your
legal background for. You don't necessarily have
to be practicing law to make a difference."
Sachs's unplanned career path proves just that.
"I quickly realized - and it's become reinforced
over the years - that the new journey I never
would have anticipated has really been the best
thing in our lives."

Reach Thai Phi Le at tle@dcbar.org.


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