In order to effectively prepare to enter the workforce, young people with disabilities—like all young people—must have the opportunity to explore their employment potential through firsthand experience and trusted relationships with older, more experienced workers.
I know this because I was once one of those young people. And I wouldn’t be where I am today without having had many mentors encouraging me along the way, starting from a very young age.
That is why today is one of my favorite days of the year: Disability Mentoring Day. Sponsored by the American Association of People with Disabilities, Disability Mentoring Day is a job shadowing program for young people with disabilities. Each year it occurs on the third Wednesday of October, as part of National Disability Employment Awareness Month. In fact, today we have a fantastic group of young people taking part at DOL’s headquarters in Washington, D.C.
Two mentors in my life were disability rights activists Judy Heumann and the late Susan Daniels, who, in addition to guiding me in my career path, taught me some valuable lessons—one being that it’s okay to make mistakes, something I learned in a pretty embarrassing way! Once, many years ago, I was helping plan an international conference and was eager to make a good impression. So I developed a packet of materials, complete with charts, graphs and a detailed budget I planned to use to request funding. But, when I distributed the handouts, Susan ever so politely informed me that the budget pages—the critical piece of my proposal—were blank! (Being blind, I hadn’t noticed!)
But that’s what mentorship is all about. Mentors show us how to fail, how to succeed, and everything in between. Because that’s work. And that’s life.
Now that I’m an older (or shall I say “seasoned”) worker, it gives me great pleasure to mentor other young people with disabilities, to pay it forward so to speak. Of course, mentoring comes in many forms, and sometimes it happens without even being labeled as such. But its impact is still significant. Think about it. No matter who you are or what you do, someone helped you along the way. Someone told you that you have something to offer. Someone said “you can,” when you might have been tempted to say “you can’t.”
This Disability Mentoring Day, I encourage you to consider what you can do to pay it forward.
Kathy Martinez is the assistant secretary of labor for disability employment policy.