Hugh McQuaid Photo

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy appointed West Hartford resident Jonathan Slifka to a new cabinet-level position Wednesday as an administration liaison to the state’s disabled community.

As liaison, Slifka will be charged with reaching out to people with disabilities on behalf of the Malloy administration as well as serving as an advocate for the community in coming up with policy recommendations.

Slifka was born with spina bifida and uses a wheelchair. He serves in a number of volunteer positions including as a member of the West Hartford Advisory Commission for Persons with Disabilities and as a tennis coach and counselor at the Ivan Lendl Junior Wheelchair Camp. He is the brother of Scott Slifka, West Hartford’s Democratic mayor.

“Jon certainly knows what it is like to live with a disability and has routinely broken a number of barriers throughout his life,” Malloy said.

Slifka was the first student athlete with a disability in Connecticut to play on a high school tennis team and was the first student with a disability in West Hartford to play little league baseball, Malloy said.

Slifka said he and Malloy “share a bond in that we were both born with a disability.” Malloy worked through physical disabilities as a child and has dyslexia.

Slifka said he struggled throughout his childhood with his identity and often felt identified by his disability.

“It has only been in my adult years that I have become comfortable in my own skin, realizing that I am not my disability, but rather my disability has helped shape who I am and what I have become,” he said.

“You beat me to that category of ‘comfortable in my own skin,’” Malloy said during the press conference. 

However, Malloy has had a somewhat rocky relationship with parts of the disabled community since taking office. His 2011 Thanksgiving Day message drew criticism from some, who said it was insensitive when the governor referred to “fellow residents [who] are afflicted with handicaps” which “leave them hovering on the edges of our society.”

He also was at odds with some within the disabled community after he signed an executive order starting a process for personal care assistants to unionize and collectively bargain. Advocates questioned whether the assistants wanted to unionize and criticized a working group Malloy created to guide the process because it did not include anyone with a disability.

Slifka said he believed people were frustrated with how the process has played out since.

“In terms of how it’s playing out in the disabled community, it’s certainly a source of frustration at the very least. I just hope to be able to be helpful in some way to alleviate that frustration,” he said.

The governor said “change is hard.” He said he believed anxiety over the change resulted from a perceived conflict between the rights of workers and the people employing them.

“What we are attempting to do is find the right balance between the rights of workers to make a fair wage — presumably with a level of benefits and security — and a right of a person with disabilities to play an active role in the management of that individual,” Malloy said.

Slifka will earn $70,000 a year and will begin work this Friday. He said his first goal will be to reach out to people at state agencies and those in the disabled community, and then “attempt to bridge the gap.”

Malloy said he also expects Slifka to focus on recommending policy to help foster jobs for people with disabilities.

“If you’re asking me what my focus is, to the greatest extent possible it is to make sure that people with forms of disability — physical, emotional, intellectual — have the greatest opportunity in our state and that there’s somebody at the table . . . who has the voice to speak to that issue,” he said.