Sailing to Success

When I was a teenager, I learned to sail. People are often surprised when they learn this. I was born blind, after all, and combining blindness and sailing sounds like a scary proposition. But I was so enthralled with the sea that I enrolled in the Sea Explorers program, an offshoot of the Boy Scouts of America, when I was 14.

Universal Sea Scout Badge

Badge of the Sea Scouts, formerly the Sea Explorers. Courtesy of the Boy Scouts of America (

Yes, you read that correctly. I said Boy Scouts. People are usually surprised about that as well! But the Girls Scouts didn’t offer sailing, so I happily joined the boys.  

What an incredible experience I had! I vividly remember sailing overnight on a spectacular boat — a topsail ketch that had two giant masts. I soaked it all in: the sounds, the smells and the experience of being expected to pull my weight. I was able to steer, help secure the rigs and to work as part of a team with my fellow crewmates. Some were people with disabilities, and some were not. I’ve never forgotten that feeling, how it boosted my self-confidence, my sense of inclusion, and my realization that blindness does not have to be a barrier.

I am a huge proponent of life experiences like these. That’s why I was so pleased last month when the U.S. Department of Education issued a landmark federal directive clarifying the responsibilities of schools to afford students with disabilities equal opportunities to participate in school athletics.

In specifying that unequal access to such opportunities deprives students of not just health but also social benefits, this directive reaffirmed my deeply held beliefs — shared with my colleagues at the Office of Disability Employment Policy — about the powerful relationship between extracurricular activities and employment success. But you don’t have to take our word for it; the research backs us up.

At ODEP, we base all of our work in the youth arena on what we call the Guideposts for Success. The guideposts represent what research and practice have identified as key educational and career development interventions that make a positive difference in the lives of all youth, including youth with disabilities. They were developed following an extensive review of research and best practices in education and workforce development.

There are five guideposts altogether, one of which is “Connecting Activities.” Connecting activities might be any one of an array of services and opportunities that help bridge the worlds of school and work. One obvious example is sports and recreation, which offer so much to young people, especially in developing the interpersonal, or “soft,” skills that are so critical to employment success.

The valuable role sports and other experiential learning activities play in helping youth prepare for employment is also a major theme in the “Because” public service announcement ODEP released in January. After all, teamwork, effective communication and problem solving are valuable assets — whether on a boat or in a boardroom.

Kathy Martinez is the assistant secretary of labor for disability employment policy.

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