by Kathleen Martinez
From the Editor: The next panelist was Kathy Martinez, who is assistant secretary of the Office of Disability Employment Policy in the United States Department of Labor. She was appointed by President Obama and confirmed on June 25, 2009. She is responsible for managing disability employment policy in all Department of Labor agencies. She has been blind since birth. She comes to the Department of Labor with a background in international disability rights law and leadership. She specializes in asset building, independent living, international development, diversity, and gender matters. Before her current appointment she was the executive director of the World Institute on Disability beginning in 2005. She addressed the convention on Friday morning, July 8, 2011. This is what she said:
Good morning, NFB. You guys are all rock stars in my view. Sometimes they let us out of DC, and, when I asked to come to the NFB convention, there was no question they were going to say yes. I spent time here yesterday, and I am so impressed with the program. I told the secretary that, no matter what happens, next year I want to come to the whole convention. [Applause]
I want to thank Dr. Maurer and so many of you who have shaped my life. I want you to get to know me a little bit, so I’d like to start off with a little bit of my personal story. Then I will talk about the Office of Disability Employment Policy. Like many of you, my life has been profoundly affected by my blindness, but it’s merely one of the factors that have shaped my identity and the person I’ve become. It certainly is not the only factor. I grew up in a very large Latino family. For those of you who may not know, I also have a blind sister, Peggy Martinez, who is pretty famous in the blindness community. Is anybody here from the state of Washington? Well, Peggy now resides in Washington, and we’re the two middle of six children. As of yet there is no diagnosis for why we are blind, and frankly who cares? We’re here; get used to it.
I want to say that we owe a great deal to our parents for the expectations they instilled in us early on. The Olympian Scott Hamilton said, “The only disability in life is a bad attitude.” I would say that my parents imparted that same sentiment as they raised all of us six kids. My father would make us mow the lawn. Now, hands on, child welfare people, we were asked to take our shoes off so we could feel which grass had been cut. No, it wasn’t an electric mower, so no toes were severed. But we were basically asked to participate and expected to participate in the family at all levels of family activity, whether it was cleaning the barbeque, picking up after the dog, whatever. We had to do it too.
When it was time for me to begin kindergarten, my parents were told that I would have to attend the school for the blind, which at that point was over five hundred miles away from our home in California. They didn’t really want me to do that, and they fought hard for both me and Peggy to be able to attend public school. I am so glad that they did, because that really did impact my life--although I never was able to learn how to play the piano. That was one thing about the school for the blind that I think I probably would have learned had I gone. I also didn’t have much of a blind community, which was another thing, I think, that the school for the blind offered. But I did have my sister, which was a blessing. After the initial discomfort of starting mainstream school and what seemed like hundreds of questions from the kids, we were gradually woven into the fabric of the lives of our peers without disability at our school.
That experience has served me very well, I would say, throughout my life. It wasn’t always easy, ‘cause kids can be mean sometimes. But it was worth it because I began to gain a sense of how to survive in a world that really wasn’t designed for me. But again blindness is just one of my defining attributes, and throughout the years a variety of experiences really helped me identify with many populations as a Latina, a woman, and a civil rights advocate, to name a few. Even though my parents were both U.S. citizens, I have vivid memories of the Immigration Service pounding on our door demanding that my parents produce their birth certificates. I remember going to meetings at my school, where the administrators would speak louder and louder to my mother because her English wasn’t great at the time. Those certainly were very impactful moments in shaping who I am.
We lived very close to strawberry fields and orange groves in Southern California. At an early age I became aware of the farm workers who worked in those fields. I wanted to find out more information, and I was blessed to have a student teacher in the eighth grade who read a book for me onto tape called, Sweatshops in the Sun, which profoundly influenced my awareness of working conditions in those fields. We’re talking about the same thing today. The issue is no different--fair pay for fair work.
So I became very involved in the youth farm worker movement. They really didn’t know how to use my skills, so I thought, well, I’m a woman; I’ll get involved in the women’s movement, and they kind of didn’t either. They liked me, but they didn’t utilize me very well. So one day in 1977 I was at the orientation center for the blind working out my mobility instruction, and a man came over to the center who profoundly influenced my life. He gave me a flyer and said, “Come to a demonstration in front of the Federal Building” in 1977. For those of you who knew him, he was a change maker. I’m speaking about Muzzy Marcelino. Muzzy completely changed my life. He really was a master at getting young people involved. At that time it was not just the blindness movement; it was the disability rights movement. He played a significant role in teaching me how to organize, about when to work in coalition and not work in coalition. He profoundly impacted me. It’s so clear that he was schooled by folks like Jacobus tenBroek and Dr. Jernigan. One of the things that he asked me to do, because I was kind of a rebel kid, so I was an avid Braille reader. I had read all the books in the orientation center library, so I was kind of bored. He brought over some discs of Jacobus tenBroek’s speeches, and I listened to disc after disc--the same situation we’re talking about today. I was so impressed that Chick tenBroek really talked about us representing ourselves, and people still speak for us. It’s just amazing. I was on the plane yesterday, and, walking with an assistant, I still got “Where is she going?” It’s so insulting.
I often travel alone because, as blind people you probably know, though plenty of staff would like to come to these types of conferences, but, if my assistant is sighted, people end up dealing with the staff. So I very often travel alone a lot. When I do, we get in conversations about what I do, what my job is, and I tell them. Of course people always assume I’m going on vacation. They never assume I am coming to work. But I tell them, and they don’t believe it. They don’t believe it. I say, “I’m working for the Department of Labor.”
“What do you do?”
I say, “I am an assistant secretary.”
So I have just decided that I’m going to have fun with this, and I make things up. Somebody asked me the other day, “What type of work do you do?” I told him, and he didn’t believe me. So I said, “Okay, I am going to tell you what I really do. I’m Michelle Obama’s make-up artist.” [Laughter] I mean, you’ve got to have fun with this, right? Anyway, I just want to acknowledge that Muzzy changed my life as have folks like Fred Schroeder. Joanne Wilson―I hope you’re here because I love you. I was also a Bush appointee. I will say that I was on the National Council on Disability. I was the bi in the bi-partisan, because I was the only Democrat. I was very honored to be able to work with someone like Joanne Wilson and Fred Schroeder, both the previous RSA commissioners. Joanne is a role model and a mentor and just the most courageous person I have ever met in my life. I don’t mean that in a patronizing way. [Applause]
I want to talk about the Office of Disability Employment Policy because we are in a tough spot when it comes to this subminimum wage issue. Our sister agency down the hall, the Wage and Hour Division, is the enforcement agency. And they’re aware of the statistics that were given out yesterday by Anil and the ones Fred cited. But ODEP is doing what we can about it. As you know, we are a policy shop. So one of the things that we’re doing is we’re developing policy through tool kits, through what we’re calling Quality Work Environment--which I will explain later. Basically we develop information pieces and strategies for folks to change what they do. So the tool kit that we’re developing provides street-level, practical resources that will facilitate a person-centered, integrated employment model, effectively improving the employment outcome (wages and benefits) for folks with disabilities, especially the most significant disabilities.
What’s exciting about this tool kit, which will be launched in the fall, is that it will have universal applicability to many audiences, with tools to insure that integrated, community-based employment is the primary employment outcome at the federal, state, and local levels for all folks with disabilities. We’re using practical information based on real people. One of the people we’re using is this young man out of Kansas City. His name is Joe, and Joe was written off by everybody, but he refused to go into a subminimum-wage workshop. He had very significant cerebral palsy--uses a communication board, and Joe now has his own business. Fred talked about the concept of customized employment. What’s wrong with developing somebody’s work around their skills and talents? People do that all the time. It just doesn’t happen for us. So Joe is now running a small business. It’s called Poppin’ Joe. He makes popcorn and sells it to county fairs. He’s off benefits, and he’s employing other people. We have a number of examples in this tool kit of how to do it.
We’re also working with community service-provider folks to increase choice and career advancement opportunities. I know the brother before me was talking about that, and there really are rehabilitation providers who have turned themselves around, who are now paying minimum wage. If you talk to the ARC, the Association for Retarded Citizens, they’re working closely to help community rehab providers turn themselves around and basically do what our trailblazer Fred Schroeder did in the eighties. [Applause]
One of the things that the Office of Disability, actually the whole Department of Labor, is doing to walk the walk instead of just talkin’ the talk is that we were a pilot project for a model of employment titled Project Search, and it is a program that provides work experience opportunities right in our own federal agencies to high-school-age youth with significant disabilities. Every single one of these kids that we brought in--I think we brought in twenty at Labor--would have been written off, and probably their counselors would have said, “Okay, you get to go to a sheltered workshop” because they have very significant disabilities. This is now a project; it is no longer an experiment. We did the pilot, and now the Department of Education has brought people on and the Department of HHS, and next year, I think, NIH is. So the participating young people gain part-time work experiences within federal government agencies doing nonstereotypical jobs. That’s very important. They gain hands-on experience while being supervised by managers and mentors, and they also spend time in the classroom at their host federal agency, where they learn career skills, soft skills, to improve their employability later. At the end of the school year they graduate from the Project Search program, and either they are offered jobs at the federal agency they worked in, or their job coach assists them to find other jobs in the community.
This year I want you to know several students participating in the program reported to the Labor Department every day. Many of these students had never taken public transportation. Many of these students didn’t even have an ID. When we first started this program, we had to get everybody a Washington, D.C., ID because they all came from the Washington, D.C., school district. You know, work does amazing things for people. It provides us dignity and respect; it gives us a purpose. It really can fulfill our lives. To see these young people, many of whom have gotten jobs--they didn’t just disappear into the abyss; they actually got jobs. I still see a lot of them around the Department of Labor. They were not only hired by ODEP, which is critical, the whole Department of Labor, with the leadership of the secretary, is hiring these young folks with disabilities or at least providing them internships. This is a good thing; it’s an excellent thing.
I know it’s time for me to end. I just want to say one other thing. We have a grant, a request for proposal that is coming out, and I want everybody to know about it. Hopefully it will be out sometime near the end of July. Look in the Federal Register. It’s called Add Us In. It’s very important to me and to the secretary that, when we look for employment, our opportunities aren’t only with big companies, but they’re also with small businesses, who are really the engine of this economy. So these programs are to help design ways to work with the small-business community, focusing on minority-owned businesses, to hire folks with disabilities, because a lot of times the things that we develop both in the government and in the private sector in advocacy groups like NFB never get to small business owners. We don’t want them to have the excuse that they don’t know where to find people with disabilities or that there are not qualified people with disabilities out there, because we’re out there. So check it out. It’s coming. It’s going to be available, and I hope your states apply for it.
I want to say that we know fear, misconceptions, and antiquated stereotypes still remain our biggest barriers, but you all are at the forefront of change, and I want to say, keep pushing us since I am now a government person. Keep pushing us. Hold us accountable. Don’t let up. Thank you very much.