According to the Fiscal Year 2020 Intelligence Community Annual Demographic Report, only 11% of the Intelligence Community identifies as persons with disabilities across all pay grades.
That percentage is even smaller, at 7.7% when looking at people with disabilities who serve at the senior executive level — one of the highest positions below political appointees in the federal government.
Dr. Paula Briscoe is a part that small percentage — she is legally blind and serves as a senior executive at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
Over the past 20 years, Briscoe served at the Defense Intelligence Agency and ODNI where she deployed to the Middle East, reached Senior National Intelligence Service officer or SNIS, and received multiple prestigious awards.
Briscoe has never let her disability limit her or stop her from following her passion of service.
“I knew I wanted to serve in some capacity,” said Briscoe. “I couldn’t serve in uniform due to my vision. I have always been interested in international relations and what makes countries stable enough to allow progress and development to occur.”
Briscoe received her Ph.D. in International Relations from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. She wrote her dissertation on the development of the European Union’s security and defense identity and its affects on U.S. interest in Europe.
“Serving in the Intelligence Community seemed like the best way to contribute to the national security of the U.S. and our allies with the skills and the abilities I had,” said Briscoe.
This expertise led her to pursue a career with the IC, starting at DIA.
Briscoe served at the Pentagon as a Senior Intelligence Analyst in the Crisis Management Division for DIA from 2000 to 2005, where she was a senior intelligence analyst for the J2 and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
“I was one of only a few women in my division and the only noticeably disabled person I was aware of when I started,” said Briscoe.
During that time, the Sept. 11 attacks changed how Briscoe saw her career and opened up new opportunities to serve.
“I very much wanted to deploy after the (Sept. 11th) attacks,” said Briscoe. “When they asked for volunteers, I would constantly raise my hand and not be selected.”
A few years later, Briscoe had the opportunity to deploy to the Middle East as a leader in a small analytic unit.
“I ended up deploying and being extended twice resulting in over a year. Each position carried increased responsibilities,” said Briscoe.
Over the course of the deployments, Briscoe ended up serving as the deputy director of the same 1,200-person element where she started out as a manager for one of the smaller analytic units.
“Never give up, keep volunteering and you can make things happen,” said Briscoe.
Briscoe currently serves as a senior executive management officer, where her job is to ensure that the ODNI engages with the highly capable senior leadership corps and helps support senior leaders reach their full potential.
“Our leadership corps must exemplify ODNI values in order to build trust and confidence throughout the IC, on Capitol Hill, and with the American people,” Briscoe says.
Briscoe’s day-to-day routine is supported by her guide dog, Cascade, a three-year-old female yellow Labrador retriever from Guide Dogs for the Blind, a nonprofit based in San Rafael, California.
“Cascade’s main job is to guide me safely from point A to point B,” said Briscoe. “When Cascade is not leading, she must remain calm and quiet by my side, or at my feet, until it is time to resume guide work.”
Guide dogs have been around since World War II, and since then, many lives have been transformed due to the partnership of guide dogs and humans.
Cascade must stay focused while she works and not be distracted by other dogs or environmental factors, said Briscoe.
Briscoe and Cascade are very social; however, much of the time, Briscoe doesn’t know who is around her due to her limited sight.
“Imagine walking into work each day and not being able to recognize anyone, not in a meeting, or in the cafeteria,” said Briscoe. “It can be very isolating, so I always appreciate it when people let me know who they are.”
Briscoe said that she has experienced more diversity and inclusion today than she did 20 years ago, but she believes there is still room for improvement.
“Change takes time, especially in a large bureaucracy, but we need to keep pushing for progress,” Briscoe said.
The IC has worked to hire and promote diverse talent — an effort specially highlighted in the Joint Strategy to Advance Equal Employment Opportunity Diversity Equality and Inclusion 2020–2023.
The goal of the strategy is to establish objectives and work to improve the IC’s ability to hire, retain, and promote a more diverse workforce, especially with regard to underrepresented demographic groups, and cultivate an inclusive workplace.
“I believe in leadership at all levels, but I think it’s really important to develop our senior officers,” said Briscoe.
All senior leadership at ODNI have performance objectives that require the officer to implement diversity and support inclusion efforts.
“We should all strive to continue to learn and grow, and remain humble enough to know we have much more to learn at every stage,” said Briscoe. “I believe the U.S. is a force for good in the world and I am honored and humbled to be able to contribute to that worthwhile effort.”
Briscoe says that her favorite part about working for the ODNI is being able to contribute to our national security.
“The mission here at ODNI and across the IC is incredibly rewarding, you get to work with really intelligent people that are committed in making the world a better place,” said Briscoe. “A lot of people here are driven by ideals, and — disability or not — you can have meaningful impact as a member of the IC.”