Celebrating Marlene Sallo, NDRN’s new Executive Director

October 15, 2022

On October 16, 2022, Marlene Sallo will become the first woman, first Latina, and first person with a disability to be appointed as Executive Director of the National Disability Rights Network (NDRN). In celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month, Disability Rights Tennessee (DRT) is delighted to honor Marlene and her lifelong commitment to advocacy. 

Last month, Dalmys Sanchez and Jessica “Jess” Klacik, from our Community Relations Department sat down with Marlene and discussed her upbringing and vibrant career. Despite suffering from a migraine during the meeting, Marlene’s passion burned bright. Marlene is an inspiration for disability advocates and allies and we are honored to share her story. 

Marlene Sallo was born in Cuba in the height of Fidel Castro’s communist regime. Once her aunt was able to file a successful petition for immigration, Marlene was brought to the United States by her mother and grandmother, sadly leaving her father behind. Marlene’s family settled in New York where she noted that the diversity of the population made it easier for her to adapt to her new life, but that “the assimilation comes at the expense of getting separated from your culture. You learn to speak quietly so that people don’t notice your accent, because you want to fit in.” 

However, since Marlene was young, her mother would say to her: “I brought you here so you can have freedom of speech.” This has given Marlene a sense of purpose in life: to not remain quiet but instead use her voice at the service of those whose voices are excluded or ignored. During our interview, she proudly proclaimed, “I will not be silenced,” as Marlene feels her silence would be a dishonor to the sacrifices that her mother and grandmother made.   

With integrity and advocacy rooted in her values from a young age, Marlene started her career in the early intervention system, working with families caring for infants whose development was affected by substance use. She then became a special education teacher with a commitment to teaching and evaluating her students according to their own learning styles. Marlene strongly believes that every child can learn and succeed when provided appropriate supports.  

While serving as a high school special education teacher, Marlene was faced with accusations of cheating by her school’s leadership when her students began to test higher than their general education counterparts. These allegations were a direct question of not just Marlene’s competence as a teacher, but her students’ abilities. Instead of letting this situation deter her, Marlene was driven to pursue further education and work her way through the system to create positive change. 

Transitioning from teacher, to student, to expert, Marlene became an attorney and has dedicated her career to advancing the rights of people with disabilities across different systems. She has used her training and strong voice to advocate for children in foster care, the education system, and the juvenile justice system. By educating judges and attorneys on the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), Marlene emphasized the necessity for Individual Education Plans (IEPs) to disrupt the school to prison pipeline for children with disabilities. For children within the juvenile justice system, Marlene is a fierce advocate for proper placement to ensure appropriate supports are provided and children are given access to educational opportunities.  

Being a person with a disability herself, Marlene believes that people with disabilities should be invited and included in all discussions that seek to improve the lives of people in this country. Quoting Shirley Chisholm, Marlene said: “If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring in a folding chair.” This quote, together with her determination to not be silenced, summarizes her approach to advocacy throughout her long and diverse career defending and protecting the rights of people with disabilities.  

While Marlene credits part of her success to her childhood, she also acknowledges that being raised in a city like New York was a double-edged sword. Although she was able to exist comfortably and coexist with a diverse population, she lost touch of her own Cuban culture. 

When asked to share a message for Latino’s who are living with disabilities in the United States, Marlene said: “Find an advocate to speak up on your behalf when possible. They will know what to say and how to navigate the system. They know how the law stands up and protects them.” She then added “We need families to feel safe and protected when coming to us [P&A Agencies].”  

*The National Disability Rights Network (NDRN) is the membership organization that supports the work of the federally mandated Protection and Advocacy (P&A) Systems. The P&A network is the largest provider of legally based advocacy services to people with disabilities in the United States. There is a P&A agency in every state and U.S. territory as well as one serving the Native American population in the four corners region.* 

“My goal is that every time there is a conversation taking place on any issue that affects the citizens of the US (people who live here not just those with papers) NDRN needs to be there at that table for the discussion. All decisions affect us, not just themes with disabilities and we should be present. I want a seat at the table, and I will bring it.”  

Marlene says to all of Disability Rights Tennessee’s (and all P&A agency) staff: “The work that we do is so very important. It is my hope and prayer and goal to lift the work that we [P&A’s] are doing. We need to shine a light and amplify the advocacy that we are doing, and I am prepared to do just that in DC.” Marlene is not new to P&A’s or DC. She has served as an Education Attorney at Disability Rights Florida and Executive Director at the Disability Law Center in Massachusetts. Her unwavering commitment to advocacy resulted in a presidential appointment to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights under the Obama Administration.  

Collaboration is a priority for Marlene. She told Dalmys and Jess that “change comes from not only continuous work and education, but change is also caused by people uniting.” Marlene hopes that Protection & Advocacy agencies begin to collaborate on a regional level to push back on the systems that are having a negative impact on communities at large. She concluded our conversation by saying, “the worst thing that can happen is passing away tomorrow without having TRIED.” 

Our hope is that as Marlene takes on her new role, she can inspire us all to ignite or stoke the fire within ourselves that she has operated with throughout her entire career. Marlene is honored to do the work she does, thankful for the sacrifices that have gotten her here, and eager to see what the future holds.  

Disability Rights Tennessee enthusiastically congratulates Marlene Sallo for her new leadership position at the National Disability Rights Network. We are thankful for the opportunity to shine a light on her rich cultural heritage as a Latina Cuban American whose contributions have had a positive impact in the lives of people with disabilities across the country. Her robust professional background in advocacy instills confidence that she will direct the work of the Protection & Advocacy agencies to significantly advance the disability rights movement.   

If you would like to learn more about Marlene Sallo, please visit the NDRN website. https://www.ndrn.org/resource/ndrn-board-announces-marlene-sallo-to-become-executive-director/.