As assistant secretary of labor for disability employment policy, I am often asked about the key to advancing disability employment. Is it accessible technology? Better transportation systems? Accommodations? Stronger enforcement of the law? Benefits reform?
And my answer is always yes. And no. Those things are all vital, but each is one part of a whole. They are the essential elements that allow more people with disabilities to get hired and succeed on the job, which then has a cyclical effect that feeds back to further a culture of inclusion.
The first step in this cycle is expectation, which starts at home, like it did with me. Like all young people, youth with disabilities must grow up expecting to work and succeed, and the messages can’t start early enough. This expectation must then follow them through school and college and into the workplace, another critical step in the cycle.
Employers must foster flexible work environments open to employing the talents of all qualified individuals. This is not hard. Yet, I’m often asked by employers, “How can we foster a more disability-inclusive culture at our company?” My answer is simple: Hire people with disabilities. Nothing is more effective than having people with disabilities as part of the team.
When high expectations meet inclusive workplaces, we reach the final step, and what my dedicated colleagues and I ultimately seek to achieve: empowerment. At ODEP, we don’t just work to increase the employment of people with disabilities, we work to empower them. We work to ensure they have equal opportunity to contribute their skills and talents, for their benefit and society’s as a whole.
Work is the primary route out of poverty to self-sufficiency. But for so many of us — whether we have a disability or not — it also means more than a paycheck; it offers purpose and the opportunity to lead an independent, self-directed life. On multiple levels, work empowers us. And with increased empowerment, comes increased expectation, and the cycle continues.
This year’s National Disability Employment Awareness Month theme sums up this cycle in three brief but powerful words: Expect. Employ. Empower. Although recognized in October, the NDEAM theme is announced each spring to assist individual workplaces and communities in planning events and activities.
This year, we enlisted the public’s help in developing the theme. We were pleased to receive more than 125 great suggestions through an online dialogue in which anyone could submit ideas. We then narrowed this list based on input from members of our Campaign for Disability Employment and ultimately arrived with this year’s theme.
I’m so pleased with the result, because those three words — Expect. Employ. Empower. — clearly convey that advancing disability employment is about more than any singular thing. Rather, it’s about creating a cycle of inclusion.
Kathy Martinez is the assistant secretary of labor for disability employment policy.