In honor of the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, this year’s Black History Month theme is “Civil Rights in America.” This theme has special resonance to us in the Office of Disability Employment Policy, because it’s central to what we do: advance America’s fundamental promise of equal opportunity and self-determination for all.
The Civil Rights Act set the wheels in motion for a more equal and inclusive America for not only African-Americans, but also other communities fighting against marginalization, segregation and exclusion —including people with disabilities. At the time the act was passed, the disability rights movement was in its infancy, and its leaders learned a great deal from the many men and women who worked indefatigably to get the law passed.
One of these leaders was Barbara Jordan, a woman for whom I have great admiration. Born in 1936, Jordan was a woman of many firsts: the first African-American woman elected to the Texas Senate; the first Southern African-American woman elected to the U.S. House of Representatives; and the first African-American woman to deliver a keynote address at a national political convention (ranked fifth among the top 100 American speeches of the 20th century). In fact, Jordan’s trailblazing didn’t stop upon her passing; she was the first African-American woman to be buried in the Texas State Cemetery.
Jordan was also a person with a disability; she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1973, shortly after being elected to Congress. In the ensuing years, she wasn’t entirely open about her disability, often attributing her use of a cane, and later a wheelchair, to a bad knee. This was likely due to the stigma and discrimination she feared she might face if she was open about her MS — stigma and discrimination she had personally experienced having grown up as a person of color in the American South. She also chose to remain private about her sexual orientation.
It was Jordan’s right to not disclose these additional sides of her identity, of course. But together they serve to highlight the universality of the struggle for civil rights in America. Although not active in the disability or gay rights movements, Jordan had a significant impact on them — because when we advance inclusion for any underrepresented community, it lifts all of us up a little higher. We rise together.
At ODEP, we work each day to foster a culture of inclusion, so that more people are comfortable bringing their whole selves to work. This spirit underpins all we do and is also at the heart of the Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act updates that take effect next month, which require federal contractors and subcontractors to invite applicants and employees to self-identify as people with disabilities. We want people like Barbara Jordan and so many other talented Americans to be proud of who they are — openly, without fear of discrimination.
Kathy Martinez is the assistant secretary of labor for disability employment policy.