I’ve benefited from the counsel of many wise people in my life − coaches, educators, supervisors and others who oversaw my earlier work experiences. Indeed, mentors have influenced who I am today, both personally and professionally. I’m frequently reminded of this good fortune, especially during National Mentoring Month each January.
The importance of mentors was reinforced to me in a very significant way in the months and years following my 1994 spinal cord injury. At the time of my accident, I was fortunate to have had a mentor with a disability: Alan Reich, founder of the National Organization on Disability. Alan also had a spinal cord injury, and working for him challenged my previous misconceptions about people with disabilities.
Before founding NOD but after acquiring his disability, Alan had worked as both a corporate executive and served as a deputy assistant secretary at the State Department. Later, these lessons and his example took on a whole new meaning, illustrating what was possible for myself. He raised my expectations for people with disabilities, showing me that someone can succeed as a senior executive with a significant disability. He also introduced me to clever and creative accommodations that allowed me to work as fast as I could before my injury. In fact, my new voice recognition software quadrupled my typing speed!
Ginny Thornburgh, a family friend and longtime disability advocate, also became a mentor to me, offering sage advice on nearly everything from political and management advice to what clothes look best in a seated position! Because of our friendship and her passion for her work, Ginny’s influence was serendipitously significant, and I still think, “What would Ginny do?” when I make many decisions.
Disability rights leader Becky Ogle, who led the Presidential Task Force on Employment of Adults with Disabilities when I worked there, set me on a path in public service and taught me a great deal about leadership in the public policy sphere. She invited me to accompany her to events where I met many leaders from all disability organizations and federal agencies. She was an expert in developing policy through collaboration. In fact, the task force’s subsequent recommendations led to the creation of the department’s Office of Disability Employment Policy, where today I’m the deputy assistant secretary.
Mentoring was essential to my professional journey, and it is an important part of ODEP’s youth policy framework, the Guideposts for Success. The guideposts represent what research and practice have consistently identified as vital educational and career development interventions that make a positive impact in the lives of youth with disabilities. Of course, career mentoring can play an important role in the employment success of all young people. But research tells us that it can be especially beneficial to young people with disabilities new to the workforce.
In honor of National Mentoring Month and the many mentors who have made a difference in the lives of young people with disabilities, the Campaign for Disability Employment will host a Twitter chat on Thursday, Jan. 12, from 2-3 p.m. This chat will explore mentoring and its role in the employment success of people with disabilities, especially those just starting out in their careers. You can join in using the hashtag #DisabilityMentors. This chat is being held in collaboration with one of the CDE’s founding members, the American Association of People with Disabilities, and will feature special guest Derek Shields, co-chair of the National Disability Mentoring Coalition.
The NDMC works to advance mentoring for people with disabilities. In 2015, I was inducted into its Susan M. Daniels Disability Mentoring Hall of Fame for my work to further its mission, something I’ve greatly enjoyed doing in both the professional and personal context. This award meant so much to me because it brought my good fortune full circle. I can think of no better way to honor the guidance that Alan, Ginny, Becky and many others have provided me than to pay it forward. Working with my dedicated colleagues in ODEP, I’m thrilled for the opportunity to do so — this month and every month.
The ODEP-funded Employer Assistance and Resource Network on Disability Inclusion (EARN) offers primers for both federal agencies and private employers interested in learning more about the value of and how to implement workplace mentoring programs, for people both with and without disabilities.
Jennifer Sheehy is the deputy assistant secretary of labor for disability employment policy.