Building Inclusion

by Kathy Martinez on October 1, 2014 · 0 comments

This week I have had the pleasure of attending the U.S. Business Leadership Network conference, the nation’s largest gathering of employers committed to a diverse workforce inclusive of people with disabilities. As in previous years, it is serving as a most fitting kick-off to National Disability Employment Awareness Month.

While here, I find myself thinking about just how much the conversation about disability and employment has changed in recent years, and for the better. Throughout the workshops and presentations, one message has resounded loud and clear: The way forward is less about individual policies and programs and more about culture and commitment. It’s about choosing and building inclusion.

This affirmed my deep-seated belief that true progress on disability employment requires a broader view than we as a society have afforded it in the past. That’s not to say individual policies and programs aren’t important, because they are. But they alone are not enough. Rather, they’re the individual building blocks that support a larger structure, one we all play an important role in shaping, whether we have a disability or not.

To me, this new paradigm is encapsulated beautifully in this year’s NDEAM theme: Expect. Employ. Empower. Those three brief but powerful words provide a framework for a more holistic approach to increased workforce inclusion of those of us with disabilities. And we have seen significant strengthening of this framework in just the last few months. For example, the Workforce Investment and Opportunity Act, which is modernizing and improving our nation’s workforce development system, includes a specific focus on increasing competitive, integrated employment opportunities for people with disabilities, including significant disabilities. In this way, it’s helping increase expectation.

Furthermore, historic updates to Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act have established, for the first time ever, metrics against which those who do business with the federal government must measure their success in employing qualified workers with disabilities. They are also facilitating the success of those contractors by increasing their access to a large, diverse pool of qualified workers. In this way, they’re helping increase employment.

During NDEAM, we celebrate these recent accomplishments, and the millions of us Americans with disabilities, now and throughout history. We also challenge ourselves to build a little higher, to strive for the summit, empowerment. So over the month, we will be announcing various policy and programmatic priorities—new building blocks—for our work going forward. Among these are grant awards, online resources on accessible technology, and public service announcements that emphasize that those of us with disabilities, like all people, have many diverse factors that make us who we are, including our occupations.

NDEAM traces its roots to 1945, when Congress declared the first week in October each year “National Employ the Physically Handicapped Week.” We’ve certainly come a long way since then, in both words and way of thinking. Today, it’s a time to honor and educate. It’s also a time to lay the next steps toward true inclusion, by asking ourselves what more we as a society can do to build a culture of inclusion—to expect, employ and empower—this and every month.

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

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