As another ODEP-led National Disability Employment Awareness Month draws to a close, I am heartened by all the fantastic ways individuals and organizations have worked to spread the spirit of this year’s theme, Because We Are EQUAL to the Task. This spirit was perhaps most evident on Disability Mentoring Day (DMD), which this year served as both the figurative and literal centerpiece of the month.
Held on the third Wednesday of October, DMD is led by the American Association of People with Disabilities, but implemented in many creative ways at local workplaces and other venues nationwide. This year, the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences and the SAS Institute co-hosted a STEM Career Showcase for Students with Disabilities, where participants learned about jobs in science, technology, engineering and math. Nearly 200 students in grades 3 through 12 attended the event, where they had the opportunity to meet professionals in a variety of STEM careers.
And that’s just one example. Many companies and organizations hosted DMD events that offered all sorts of activities, from hands-on work experience to job shadowing to career fairs. Such experiences are so important, because in order to effectively prepare to enter the workforce, youth with disabilities — like all youth — must have the chance to learn about their employment potential firsthand through trusted relationships with more experienced peers and adults.
This point was reinforced this past May during a National Online Dialogue which the U.S. Department of Labor hosted in collaboration with the U.S. Departments of Education and Health and Human Services and Social Security Administration.
The purpose of this “virtual town hall” was to examine the challenges and opportunities youth with disabilities face as they move from school to adulthood and the world of work. It was facilitated through our ePolicyWorks crowdsourcing tool to provide all interested stakeholders—parents, teachers, service providers, policy makers, advocates, and youth with disabilities themselves—the opportunity to contribute.
The input we received will be priceless in helping us understand the many issues that need to be considered as we collaborate to align policies, programs, and practices in support of successful transition.
That said, the recurring theme about the need for more opportunities for practical work-based experiences and mentoring didn’t surprise me in the least bit. After all, having grown up with a disability, I simply wouldn’t be who I am today without the many mentors I had to help guide me and the real-world opportunities I had to explore my interests and potential, starting from a young age. Through our youth-related policies work and programs, my dedicated ODEP colleagues and I endeavor to ensure that all youth with disabilities can say the same one day.
Kathy Martinez is the assistant secretary of labor for disability employment policy.