Kathy Martinez may have been blind from birth, but she sees a lot. She sees the potential in all people, regardless of whether they have a disability. She recognizes the value of accessibility technology, and she’s a promoter of its adoption. She realizes that disabilities sometimes affect minorities more profoundly than others, and works to overcome that.
As the assistant secretary of Labor for the Office of Disability Employment Policy, Martinez has a power-perch from which to help advance the idea of inclusive hiring and technology to enable people to be fully productive. She’s traveled far from the production floor of a Kwikset door lock factory where she operated a punch press.
At ODEP, Martinez is overseeing several initiatives. Among them is a series of “sector summits,” day-long meetings to promote the hiring of the disabled in specific industries. “People always say, ‘But we’re so different,’” Martinez said. She cites a health care industry sector summit. “Yet an amazing number of disabled doctors showed up. Also nurses. The providers were blown away.”
This article originally appeared on FedInsider.com
Sometimes the summits take place in conjunction with a larger industry event. For example, the “Sunday with SHRM”, pronounced “sherm”, was a recent summit just before a major meeting of the Society For Human Resources Management. The manufacturing summit with ODEP featured HR executives from big companies like Toyota and Northrop Grumman.
ODEP itself is only 10 years old, formed in 2001 as part of the Labor Department appropriation. Its basic mission is creating policy to encourage both private and public sector organizations to hire more people with disabilities.
Because the mode of disability tends to shift depending on age group, and because in her experience disabilities affect different ethnic groups differently, Martinez sees disability hiring as a diversity issue.
“For younger people it’s often autism. For older people it’s the big three, sight, hearing and mobility,” Martinez said. “For minorities we find many violence victims who go back to un-accessible houses, unaware of the services available to them.” Martinez cites encampments of injured Hispanic farm workers along California’s Highway 1. “They disappear from the disabilities services system.”
Inclusion is a theme of Martinez’s life. She and a blind sister were the middle two children of working class parents whose other four children were sighted. To the extent possible, she said, her parents didn’t treat she and her sister, Peg, any differently than they did the other kids.
“I got my butt kicked a lot. Peg and I both always were made to do stuff, like mow the lawn. I would take my shoes off and feel the grass. We had an old-fashioned push mower.” Martinez added with a laugh, “Today the neighbors would probably call child protective services.”
She also went to mainstream public school. But at 16, she approached the California Department of Rehabilitation Ã¢ÂŽÂ¯ this was the late 1970s Ã¢ÂŽÂ¯ and it found her the door knob factory job.
“It was a filthy, oily machine. But it was a great experience. I was embraced by the other workers after two weeks of eating lunch alone.” They persuaded the floor boss to let them assist Martinez by leaving their machines 50 seconds earlier than scheduled for restroom breaks.
But for people like Martinez with higher ambitions, the Department of Rehabilitation was no help. It had gotten her a job, so case closed. Fast forward 15 years, and Martinez received a degree at UC Berkeley and joined the World Institute on Disability, ending up as its executive director. She helped form Proyecto Visión, under the auspices of the WID, devoted to providing technical assistance to Latinos with disabilities. She worked to develop strategies to encourage small Latino-owned businesses to hire people with disabilities.
Martinez also came to the attention of the federal government. She was named a board member of the U.S. Institute of Peace and a member of the National Council on Disability (appointed by President George W. Bush). And she was on the panel to advise Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice on disability issues.
Later came the call from Labor Secretary Hilda Solis of the Obama administration. “She did the interview over the phone,” Martinez said. “The rumor got started that we’d met at a Latina sorority in D.C. But I’d never met her.”
Among the other initiatives at ODEP under Martinez:
Rulemaking is underway on a controversial plan to require federal contractors to hire more people with disabilities. She said reactions in comments received so far range from, “this will kill us” to “this is great.”
Emphasizing the idea of keeping people at work and advancing. And also returning aging workers to work, with their presumed experience, what Martinez calls the “brain trust” in many organizations.
Martinez pointed out the economic benefits of getting people with disabilities into the workforce. Instead of costing money through assistance programs they become contributors to the economy. “If we could get just two percent of the people with disabilities off the roles, what a way to bring down the deficit.”