by Kathy Martinez
From the Editor: Kathy Martinez is the people with disabilities segment manager at Wells Fargo. She has appeared several times on our convention agendas, at least one of those times in her capacity as assistant secretary in the Office of Disability Employment Policy in the United States Department of Labor. She is a blind person with a diverse resumé, and her can-do message is always a welcome addition to our convention agenda. Here is what she said at the 2016 National Convention:
My Federation family, I'm so happy and thrilled and honored to be able to actually spend a good chunk of time at this convention. At my previous job I was not able to do that. I would come in and say hello and would have to leave again. As Mr. Riccobono said, I am now working for Wells Fargo. Some of you remember me from the Department of Labor, and I will say, given that it has been more than a year of separation, I am so happy that you guys are collaborating—let's say—with AbilityOne and pushing them to new heights, which I'm sure they're capable of reaching with your help. Congratulations to you guys [applause].
I was asked to talk a little bit about my story, and then I want to talk about Wells Fargo, but I will say again that we are very, very proud to sponsor the BELL Academy. We meet with Carlton once a month to hear about the amazing progress that you all have made. We are encouraging our team members to volunteer so they can learn from the kids—that's really the goal. And I'd like to give a shout-out to some Wells Fargo colleagues who are also members of the National Federation of the Blind, and that's Jennifer Westbrook—I don't know if she's here, oh she is here, yay!—and David Tem, who I know is here—there he is. That's important to know, that I'm not the only blind person at Wells Fargo. There are many talented folks there, and we intend to hire more [applause].
Just a little bit about me: you know I'm always really inspired to hear the work that the Federation is doing, and I'll say that the Federation played a big role in my life in shaping me. I would say that I was also very lucky, because I had parents who expected a lot of me. Dr. Maurer talked about expectations and the impact that the tyranny of low expectations can have. Fortunately, I am one of two blind people in my family, and I say fortunately because I'm very lucky to have a sister, Peggy Martinez, who many of you know. She's the smart one, and she and I really served as touchstones for each other growing up. We're the middle two of six kids, nobody knows why we're blind, and frankly nobody should care at this point, but we do get asked quite a bit. We grew up in a big family—six kids, two parents, lots of pets—so we were kicked around a little bit, which was good; we kicked back, too. But we were not special, and believe me, special is not where we want to be in any part of society. We lose the quickest if we're considered special. So let's get disability off the special shelf and weave it into every part of life.
We were mainstreamed, but we also were very lucky in that we had a recreation program for the blind that was in the days where you actually were not afraid—we didn't have to sign anything. We got hurt, we climbed mountains, we did a lot of things that I just don't know—I hope blind kids are getting experience like that, because it really helped us grow up.
I went to the orientation center for the blind in the late 70s—I'm pretty old, by the way—and I was bored on the weekends, I was bored to death. So one of the things I did was I read almost every book in the library that they had, but I also found a pile of flexible disks with the speeches of Jacobus tenBroek, and I listened to every single flexible disk. It was like this treasure, this goldmine of brilliance, right? And in that same time, I don't know if anybody is old enough to remember the takeover of the Federal Building to strengthen the ATW regulations, which ultimately ended up with 504. Well, I'm old enough to have gone to that demonstration. I didn't go inside because I was told I would be kicked out of the orientation center if I actually helped take over the building, but I met a man named Muzzy Marcelino [applause, cheers]. Now I'm dating myself. But he really was an inspiration and a help, and he strongly encouraged me to dream my dreams and dream big. So I went back to Southern California where I grew up, and I wanted to work. Because I saw what poverty could do to people, I didn't want my goal to be an SSI check. I went to my rehab counselor, and he was very happy I wanted to work, but I didn't want to be a rehab teacher or a PBX operator or any of those things. So he very proudly—in his mind—placed me as a punch press operator in a lock factory. When that happened, I was very grateful at first, but then about nine months into it I thought, gosh, this is not what I want to do for the rest of my life. He closed my case, so he was very proud of himself. I came back, asked him if I could go to college, and he said, “No, we closed your case. You're a twenty-six, you're great, we got you a job.”
I just want people to know that we all grow up in different ways, and college does not have to be a four-year experience. It took me thirteen years to graduate [applause] from college, and I was well into my job with the World Institute on Disability. I worked there for eighteen years, and then I got a call in January of 2009 from John Lancaster, who used to direct NCIL, the National Council on Independent Living, because my work had primarily focused on financial impairment.
As a kid I saw what poverty could do. I saw how my mother was often treated badly because she was a woman—you know she couldn't even get a credit card without my dad's signature. I just really wanted to have money, so I worked from a pretty young age. I also moved to Mexico, where I adopted my son. So it is possible to be a competent blind parent [applause, cheers]. All of that, just the work that I had done, living abroad, living in a developing country, just really made me hone in on financial empowerment, meaning financial literacy and employment. That has really been my life's work.
In January of 2009 I was called by John Lancaster, and he said, “Are you interested in being the assistant secretary of the Office of Disability Employment Policy?” And I said, “Yeah, I am, actually.” So it worked out that I was able to serve this administration for about five and a half years. I’m really proud of the work that we got done—especially 503, which is really allowing companies like Wells Fargo to scour our resumé banks for competent people with disabilities. I can say we're doing really well; our hiring has definitely increased.
I was hired last year by Wells Fargo to drive the disability strategy. We have four pillars: customer experience, team member experience, philanthropy, and supplier diversity. We are very intent on becoming the bank of choice for people with disabilities and also the workplace of choice. It is a big ship to turn around.
I am not the only one doing good work there. You know we were sued—that kind of pushed things along [laughter]. But there really is a commitment now to accessibility. We've hired a brilliant blind woman, Dina Wainwright. She's our online and mobile accessibility manager. She's really done a lot to get the bank in shape, meaning that every single line of business now has an accessibility liaison. We've just established third-party vendor requirements, so even though a lot of our vendors are not brick-and-mortar establishments, they can't say, “We're not covered by the ADA.”
I really think that by doing this, we are preparing for the future. We know that 10,000 people a day are turning sixty-five, and the senior market is a big market, and we are a bank after all. But we see the advantage of making ourselves as accessible as possible and really looking at banking and the opportunity to manage one's money not as a disability issue but as a usability and accessibility issue [applause].
I want to thank the National Federation of the Blind for being so central and crucial in my life at very critical points. And I'll say: together we'll go far and live the life we want, how's that? [applause] Thank you.