ODEP Assistant Secretary Kathleen Martinez Remarks for National Convention of the Federation of the Blind Orlando, FL Friday, July 8, 2011


Thank you so much, Dr. Mauer, for that kind introduction.

I am very proud to represent the U.S. Department of Labor at this exceptional conference, which I join not only as the Assistant Secretary for Disability Employment Policy, but also as a person who is blind.

By working to integrate the blind into all aspects of our society, The NFB is changing perceptions, stereotypes and breaking down barriers to allow all blind people to reach their full potential.

So, I would like to thank Dr. Mauer and his fellow board members, John Berggren, Mark Riccobono, John Paré, Joanne Wilson and the leadership of NFB for their work.

Like so many of you, my life has been profoundly impacted by my blindness. Yet it's merely one of the factors that have shaped my identity and the person I am today.

I grew up in a very large Latino family. For those of you who may not know, I have a blind sister—we are the middle of six children and as of yet there is no diagnosis for our blindness. And let me tell you, we owe a great deal to our parents for the expectations they instilled in us early on.

The Olympian Scott Hamilton once said, "The only disability in life is a bad attitude." And my parents imparted that same sentiment as they raised me and my sister.

When it was time for me to begin kindergarten, my parents were told that I would have to attend the school for the blind 500 miles away from our home in California. But they refused to accept that and fought very hard – first for me and then for Peggy – to be able to attend public school.

And I'm so glad that they did. After the initial discomfort of starting that mainstream school and what seemed like hundreds of questions from the kids, we were gradually woven into the fabric of the lives of our peers without disabilities.

And that experience has served me very well throughout my life. It wasn't always easy because kids can be mean sometimes, but it was worth it because I began to gain a sense of how to survive in a world that wasn't designed for a blind person.

But again, blindness is just one of my defining attributes. And throughout the years, a variety of experiences helped me identify with many populations – as a Latina, as a woman, and as a champion for civil rights, just to name a few.

Even though my parents were both U.S. citizens, I have vivid memories of Immigration Services pounding on our door demanding that my parents produce their birth certificates.

I remember going to meetings at my school where the administrators would speak louder and louder to my mother because her English wasn't great at the time. Those certainly were defining moments.

We lived very close to the strawberry fields and orange groves in southern California, and at an early age, I became aware of the farm workers who worked in those fields.

I had a student teacher in 8th grade who read a book for me on tape called, "Sweatshops in the Sun," which profoundly influenced my awareness of working conditions in those fields just a few blocks from my house. And based on that, I realized that other people faced oppression and discrimination based on other factors besides disability. That book piqued my interest in the struggle of farm workers and sparked a lot of questions about why they were treated so badly. And based on that curiosity, I began to get involved in the youth effort to improve conditions for local farm workers.

Unfortunately, while I was connecting with folks around my Latina-ness, they had no clue how to handle the blindness factor.

I did, however, learn a lot about unions and union organizing. During that period, the mid 1970's, I met some women who were very active in the women's movement. So I thought, "Ok. I'm a woman. I'll be welcome there."

But again, although I was well liked, I was not well utilized in the efforts to pass the Equal Rights Amendment. But I did learn a lot about women's oppression and strategies used to achieve women's, gay and lesbian rights.

It may or may not surprise you that I faced multiple challenges becoming successfully employed.

I found that there were very few employment opportunities for blind people in that era – and certainly few integrated employment opportunities. A blind woman could be a rehabilitation counselor, telephone operator, or typist in a typing pool.

But, interestingly enough, when I was being assessed by career counselors for the blind during my high school years, I was channeled toward factory jobs and ended up getting a job in a lock factory.

I was not tracked into the typical jobs that other blind women were being encouraged to pursue. Who can say why? I don't know if it was because the rehab counselor didn't believe I was capable, because he thought that Latinos were all migrant workers or that no one would hire someone who didn't look like him.

Instead I was placed in a rather dangerous work environment where a person with a disability would probably never be placed today. If you can believe it – I ran a punch press.

Eventually, I found the disability rights and independent living movements, moved to Berkeley and was able to channel all my various identities into meaningful pursuits. And I have been working primarily as a disability rights advocate ever since.

I tell you these stories, not because my experiences are especially unique, but because I've been able to take my experiences and apply them to the work I want to do.

And all people with disabilities should be able to do that, because work adds value to our lives. Henry Ford once said that, "There is joy in work. There is no happiness except in the realization that we have accomplished something." And I truly believe that.

And I think that we can all agree, no matter who you are or where you are from, work is about dignity and respect. Because everyone wants to feel that they have contributed to their family and society in a meaningful way.

President Obama understands this, as well.

(Executive Order) On July 26, 2010, the President signed an Executive Order promoting the civil rights of people with disabilities. This landmark Executive Order calls on all executive departments and agencies to increase the number of people with disabilities hired into the federal government.

It also requires federal agencies to improve retention and return to work options of federal employees with disabilities. It calls for mandatory training programs for HR personnel and hiring managers. And it requires that each agency develop a plan that includes performance targets for the employment of people with disabilities and sub goals for those with targeted disabilities.

It's truly an honor to be part of an Administration that sees disability as part of the diversity agenda and that really values our voice at the table.

(ODEP/DOL) Now, as you know, I have the honor of leading the Office of Disability Employment Policy, which is the federal government's center of expertise on the employment of people with disabilities.

As part of the Labor Department's focus on expanding opportunities for all Americans, ODEP works to influence national policy and promote effective workplace practices that ensure today's workforce is inclusive of all people – including people with disabilities.

And if you don't know this already, we have an incredible ally in Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis. She understands our issues and is committed to getting ODEP off the sidelines and weaving disability into the fabric of the entire agency just like any other diversity issue.

When Secretary Solis says she wants to ensure "good and safe jobs for everyone" she means everybody, including those of us with disabilities. And I can say to all of you here that we are walking the walk!

As many of you know, the employment of people with disabilities is one of the last great frontiers in promoting our civil rights.

We've made incredible advancements in independent living and accessibility, yet the employment rate of people with disabilities hovers around 23%, and the unemployment rate of people with disabilities hovers around 15 percent.

This is truly unacceptable.

Many of our employment challenges can be attributed to the difficulties associated with getting needed supports and services while seeking employment, or while contemplating the viability of accepting a job offer.

As a person who is blind, I think one of the most frustrating aspects of having a disability is what I call the "information barrier"—other people have information and services easily available to them, while the needs of people with significant disabilities aren't often considered. At DOL, we want to be sure that our services are available to you and easy to access – thereby facilitating your employment goals, not hindering them.

We are also working to ensure that people with disabilities have access to integrated, community-based employment opportunities with benefits and wages at or above minimum. After all, we know the great results that come from customized employment models, where we tap the skills and contributions of individuals to match employer demand for a reliable, productive workforce.

And this is why ODEP is an integral part of the Department's goal of "good jobs for everyone."

I'm happy to report that we have a lot going on at ODEP that will help people with disabilities become successfully employed in competitive, integrated positions.

(Integrated Employment Toolkit) For instance, ODEP is involved in an ongoing initiative to create an electronic Toolkit that will inform individuals, families, caregivers, community rehabilitation providers, employers and state policy makers about available strategies to increase community-based, integrated job opportunities for people with significant disabilities, including those with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

The Toolkit will provide street-level, practical resources that will facilitate a person-centered, integrated employment model, effectively improving the employment outcomes, wages and benefits for many people with the most significant disabilities.

What's exciting is that the Toolkit will have universal applicability to many audiences, with tools to ensure that integrated, community-based employment is the primary employment outcome at the federal, state and local levels for people with disabilities. Videos and other elements will illustrate the strategies and possible outcomes of successful integrated employment.

(Quality Work Environments) Many of you here have long fought for the right to earn equal pay for equal work. And I want you to know that we are fighting for you as well.

ODEP has and continues to provide leadership with the Committee for Purchase from People who are Blind or Severely Disabled to implement a new initiative focused on creating Quality Work Environments – or QWEs – within the employment service provider community.

This QWE initiative is intended to increase choice, career advancement opportunities and wages for individuals served by community rehabilitation providers. ODEP has been involved in the effort since its ratification by the Committee in January of 2010, and continues to provide ongoing guidance and input with respect to the initiative and its goals.

(Project SEARCH) ODEP is also guiding the Department of Labor's participation in Project SEARCH – a program that provides work experience opportunities right in our own federal agencies to high school age youth with significant disabilities.

Project SEARCH is integrated employment at its finest. Participating young people gain part-time work experiences within federal government agencies doing non-stereotypical jobs. They gain hands-on experience while being supervised by managers and mentors. And they also spend time in the classroom at their host federal agency, where they learn career skills and soft skills to improve their employability. At the end of the school year, they graduate from the Project SEARCH program and are either offered jobs at the federal agency, or job coaches assist them with finding other jobs in the community.

This year, several students in the program reported to the Labor Department every day. They developed job-ready skills, learned workplace etiquette, used public transportation to get to work and planned necessary steps to achieve their career goals. And in June, I had the honor of attending the commencement of 25 students from D.C. public schools who participated in the Project SEARCH program, and their success was truly inspiring.

(Conclusion) These are just a few of ODEP's many initiatives. As you can see, we are working hard to ensure today's workforce is inclusive of all people – including those of us with disabilities.

However, fear, misconceptions and antiquated stereotypes still remain the biggest barriers to people like us joining and thriving in the workforce. The way to stamp out these obstacles is through firsthand experience with people with disabilities. Because when we people with disabilities are integrated into the workplace, attitudes change, because people see how we benefit businesses both fiscally and organizationally.

As I said earlier, I love my work. I have support from the President, Secretary Solis and my fellow Assistant Secretaries.

But, when I go to work each day, I don't talk about my blindness. Rather, my focus is on the tasks at hand and sharing in achieving a goal.

You all are a part of this goal – changing the landscape of our workforce and weaving in the experiences, talents and strengths of people who happen to have a disability.

The change starts right here, with us. And what can you do to foster this change? You can hold us accountable, keep asking questions and push the envelope to ensure your government leaders don't become complacent.

And here's another call to action -- those of you interested in a job with the federal government can take advantage of the hiring momentum sparked by the new Executive Order. Apply for federal employment by sending your resume to this email address: resume@benderconsult.com. Just reference "Federal Career Opportunities" in the subject line.

Thank you for the opportunity to be here today and I look forward to working with all of you.

Thank you.