Youth with disabilities, like all young people, should grow up expecting to work and succeed. It’s critical that parents, educators and other influential adults reinforce this expectation, and the messages can’t start early enough. Of course, our nation’s education and employment policy must also cultivate a clear vision of work and community participation for young people with disabilities.
I was born blind and grew up in a large family. My sister Peggy was also born blind. We were the middle of six children, and there was no diagnosis for our blindness. But we were incredibly lucky because from a young age, our parents instilled in us an expectation of work. Fortunately — or unfortunately, depending on which way you look at it — this expectation started with household chores. And while I liked emptying the garbage as much as any teenager, I realize today that those chores taught me lessons about responsibility and accountability that are still relevant in my professional life.
Not all adults shared my parents’ expectations, however. So my parents often had to advocate for us. For instance, they fought for me, and later Peggy, to attend our local public school instead of a special one for the blind far away from our home and community. Basically, when my parents couldn’t wait for change, they made change happen.
That was good training for me, because today it’s my job as head of the Office of Disability Employment Policy. Each day, my ODEP colleagues and I work to make change happen. One of the changes we are working on is how to create more opportunities for youth with disabilities to successfully transition from school to adulthood and the world of work. Towards that end, we — in collaboration with the U.S. departments of Education and Health and Human Services and the Social Security Administration — are hosting an online dialogue May 13-27, 2013.
The purpose of this dialogue is to examine the impact of existing federal regulations and legislation on the transition from school to work for youth with disabilities. Compared to their peers without disabilities, these young people are twice as likely to drop out of school and half as likely to enroll in and complete postsecondary education. We’re enlisting the public’s help to change these outcomes.
Everyone with a stake in providing a pathway for youth to live, work and thrive in their communities is invited to visit the website and share their opinions. The website will be accessible and moderated. By submitting your ideas as well as commenting on and rating those of others, you will be providing important information that can help our agencies better align our policies, programs and practices.
Together, we can make change happen on behalf of America’s youth with disabilities.
Kathy Martinez is the assistant secretary of labor for disability employment policy.