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Books that Shaped Work in America

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Kathy Martinez: Assistant Secretary for Disability Employment Policy

Kathy Martinez
Assistant Secretary for Disability Employment Policy

When I was in eighth grade, a student teacher read a book on tape for me called "Sweatshops in the Sun," which was about the plight of child workers on American farms. It really piqued my interest, because I had always been very aware of the migrant farm workers in the strawberry fields and orange groves near my home in Southern California. Based on that interest, I became involved in a youth effort to improve their working conditions. That was a formative time for me. It helped shape my life and career trajectory. And it all started with a book.

I share this because it reinforces the profound influence published works have on us. Of course, this is the case not just with individuals, but also societies. And as a nation that prides itself on industriousness, it's not surprising that we've long been attracted to books with work and workers as central themes. While it's hard to pick just a few I feel have had a broad impact in this context, given my career as an advocate for people with disabilities and others with a history of workforce exclusion, three non-fiction books stick out most in my mind:

Susan Cantrell and David Smith, Workforce of One (2010). This book illustrates the benefits some innovative companies are reaping by tailoring employees' jobs to their talents and interests rather than the other way around. In essence, it argues for reversing the traditional concept of a job description — instead of the person adapting to the job, the job adapts to the person. In the disability field, we call this "customized employment," and we've been promoting it for a long time as a proven strategy for creating more diverse, inclusive workplaces welcoming of the skills and talents of people with disabilities and other complex life situations that some people mistakenly perceive to limit employability. But, as Cantrell and Smith demonstrate, it's actually a sound management strategy for all people.

Anne Fadiman, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down (1997). On a broad level, this book is about a young refugee Hmong girl with epilepsy, and cultural clashes between her family and the American medical establishment. But on a deeper level, it's about cultural differences related to disability. As a person with a disability from a diverse community, it really resonated with me. Although the culture and conflicts in this tragic but fascinating book are very different than those I have observed, as I read it I found myself thinking about how, in Latino culture, we tend to shelter family members with disabilities to keep them safe. This leads to lower expectations when it comes to employment, and although it may stem from good intentions, in the end it doesn't serve our loved ones well.

Malcolm Gladwell, David and Goliath (2013). Gladwell has now written several books that offer insight into our psyche, but this one is my favorite, so far at least, given how prolific he is. When it was first published, some people disagreed with the connections he drew in it, but again, as a person with a disability, I may have approached it from a different perspective. Although they are not words I would normally use, the subtitle"Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants" sets it up well. It's about how we deal with disadvantage and how much of the world's progress over time has in fact been borne out of it. To me, it had clear lessons for individuals and employers on the value of divergent thinking — something those of us with disabilities do on a daily basis.

Kathy Martinez is the Assistant Secretary of Labor for Disability Employment Policy.

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