One of my greatest honors has been being confirmed as the third assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy in June 2009. Since that time, I have had the daily pleasure of working with ODEP’s dedicated staff to strengthen the foundation built by my predecessors as well as the many individuals before them whose efforts lead to ODEP’s establishment in 2001.
Every day, we at ODEP — in collaboration with a range of stakeholders from both the private and public sectors — work steadfastly to address the persistent barriers to employment for people with disabilities from a public policy perspective. As a result, the conversation about disability employment has evolved — from one focused on whether people with disabilities can work to one more aptly focused on how to ensure they can succeed in and contribute to our nation’s workforce and economy.
This critical paradigm shift is reflected in the Obama administration’s disability employment agenda and corresponding accomplishments, which are outlined in a recently released report, “Real People, Real Impact.” From our innovative Add Us In grants to our efforts to make the federal government a model employer; from our “Soft Skills” curriculum for transitioning youth to our research on the implications of an aging workforce; from our national Campaign for Disability Employment to our state-level efforts to promote integrated employment, the activities described in this report reflect the breadth and depth of our work.
But, the real impact of our work is perhaps best illustrated through the experiences of the real people who embody the policies and practices we work to advance. Four years in, we can see the results of our initiatives to promote positive change.
We see the results of policy initiatives to increase the federal employment of people with disabilities in people like Joy Welan, a trial attorney at the U.S. Department of Justice who has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair. We see the results of policy initiatives to increase opportunities for integrated employment for people with disabilities in people like Mark Trezise, a clerk at a county government office who has an intellectual disability. We see the results of policy initiatives to support the return-to-work of people with disabilities in people like Rob Guttenberg, a youth and family counselor with acquired cognitive and physical disabilities.
Of course, these are just a few examples of outcomes of the policies ODEP works to advance. And while we’re proud of our accomplishments on these and many other priority areas, our work is far from done.
People with disabilities — like me — have the skills and talent to add significant value to America’s workplaces and economy. Yet, whether good economic times or bad, we’ve had far fewer opportunities to prove it than those without disabilities. This is unacceptable and contradicts the ideals upon which our nation was founded. At ODEP, we look forward to continuing to evolve the conversation so that America’s promise of equal opportunity for all truly means all.
Kathy Martinez is the assistant secretary of labor for disability employment policy.