I was born blind, and not surprisingly, my life has been profoundly impacted by my disability. Yet, it’s only one of the many factors that shape my identity and the person I am today. And an investment in my future has been critical.
Fortunately, my parents were savvy investors. And I’m not talking about financial assets. In fact, as a large family living in a suburban area of southern California, we were more familiar with the local strawberry fields and orange groves than with stocks and bonds. Regardless, my parents understood the concept of multiplying returns. And my sister Peggy and I are living proof.
Peggy and I were the middle of six children. She was also born blind. From day one, our parents invested belief in our capabilities. They fought hard for us—first for me and then for Peggy—to attend our local public school and be woven into the fabric of our community. They instilled in us a love of learning and, perhaps most importantly, an expectation of employment. This all required significant effort on their part, both in terms of energy and ardor.
As we grew older, we came to understand the value of their outlay and began reinvesting the dividends in ourselves, through education and advocacy—and hard work. Henry Ford once said “There is joy in work. There is no happiness except in the realization that we have accomplished something.” Indeed, work is fundamental to my life and self-fulfillment; it’s a huge part of who I am. It’s the same for Peggy, who today works as an IT instructor and is a talented musician.
That’s why National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM) means so much to me. This year’s theme focuses on improving opportunities that lead to good, meaningful jobs and a secure economic future for people with disabilities—and for all Americans. It also emphasizes the dividend we all gain by increasing employment opportunities for people with disabilities, and that these profits are achieved only through wise investment.
But the responsibility rests not just with those writing the paychecks. It rests with all of us. People with disabilities must understand the intrinsic value of work and the important part they play in America’s future educational and economic success. Our nation’s young people with disabilities must grow up with the expectation that they can work and assumption that they will. And parents, educators and others must affirm this by cultivating a clear vision of work and community participation. And of course, employers must foster inclusive work environments welcoming of the skills and talents of all qualified employees including those of us with disabilities.
Growing up, I didn’t know about efforts like NDEAM, but I did know about the value of work, and that has made all the difference in my life. In my family, as soon as we were old enough, we were all expected to contribute. There were no exceptions. And our family was stronger for it—just as our nation is stronger when every person is valued for his or her contributions, every day of every month.