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Reflections on Disability Employment

Assistant Secretary for Disability Employment Policy (ODEP) at the Department of Labor, Kathleen Martinez, offers reflections on ODEP's tenth anniversary and the office's many accomplishments and initiatives, including National Disability Employment Awareness Month, the Add Us In initiative, sector-specific employment summits, and The Campaign for Disability Employment.

Vincent Mazarra

October commemorates National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM). Sponsored by my agency, the Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP), NDEAM is a national campaign that raises awareness about disability employment issues and celebrates the many and varied contributions of workers with disabilities. I am inspired by the many creative NDEAM observances held nationwide this year at the grassroots level, and I was honored to participate in many of them.  Employers, schools and organizations of all sizes in numerous communities hosted events to educate audiences and promote the theme of NDEAM 2011, “Profit by Investing in Workers with Disabilities.”

And speaking of celebrations, this fall ODEP will observe its 10th anniversary by reflecting on the great advancements made in the disability employment arena. In 2001, Congress established ODEP as a sub-cabinet level agency within the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL), marking a moment in the national effort to advance the employment of people with disabilities. The placement was strategic, creating for the first time ever a permanent focus on promoting disability employment within the context of DOL’s overall work. ODEP’s unique mission is to build a coordinated, national disability employment policy agenda by working both within DOL and across Federal agencies.

Since its creation, this agency has worked steadfastly with Federal, state and local government stakeholders, disability and provider communities, and employers to improve employment opportunities for people with disabilities. As a result of  ODEP’s research, policy development and effective practices, the conversation about disability employment has evolved—from one focused on whether people with disabilities can work to one focused on effective strategies that make work happen.

And, I am so proud of our numerous accomplishments. Recent efforts focus on listening, learning, sharing and finding solutions. For instance, our "Add Us In" initiative is identifying and developing strategies to increase employment opportunities for people with disabilities within the small business community. Summits with the financial and health sectors brought together private sector leaders to explore the systemic and subtle employment barriers facing people with disabilities and effective practices for dismantling those barriers. In addition to NDEAM, ODEP sponsors The Campaign for Disability Employment, a high-profile effort to raise national awareness of disability employment issues and reverse stigmas.  

In many ways ODEP’s work is just beginning. After all, the employment of people with disabilities is one of the last great frontiers in advancing civil rights.  While we have made incredible advancements in independent living and accessibility, the employment rate of people with disabilities is too low. 

And, all of us have a role to play in reversing this inequity. Employers must foster workplaces welcoming to all qualified employees and potential employees. People with disabilities must understand the intrinsic value of work and their role in our economic success.  

Youth with disabilities must grow up with the expectation of employment. And parents, educators and other adults must strengthen this expectation by cultivating a clear vision of work and community participation.

Advancing employment opportunities and expectations for people with disabilities strengthens not only our economy, but our society. It creates a more inclusive America where every person is recognized for his or her accomplishments. So, let’s celebrate the spirit of NDEAM every day of every month.

There’s an adage that says,“The bend in the road is not the end of the road unless you refuse to take the turn.”

All of us need to “take the turn” by opening our minds and our workplaces to all employees, including those of us with disabilities. We simply cannot afford not to.

Kathleen Martinez is Assistant Secretary of Disability Employment Policy at the Department of Labor