Early on in his 2014 State of the Union address, President Obama said something that really stuck with me: “Let’s make this a year of action. That’s what most Americans want—for all of us in this chamber to focus on their lives, their hopes, their aspirations.”
I wasn’t in the chamber that night, but my boss, Secretary of Labor Tom Perez was, and he has made clear that by extension the president’s directive applies to all of us here at the Labor Department. At the Office of Disability Employment Policy, this is a natural continuance of the work we’ve done in recent years to ensure that the secretary’s vision of promoting and protecting opportunities for America’s workers means all workers, including those of us with disabilities.
The department’s proposed FY 2015 budget lays out the strategies we plan to make this a year of action. One major focus will be the Pathways to Careers initiative. This innovative program, initiated as a demonstration project this year, works to ensure that people with disabilities can fully benefit from the career-enhancing skills development opportunities offered by our nation’s community colleges.
Community colleges are a tremendous resource for anyone seeking to position themselves for high-growth, high-demand careers, but they can be an especially critical link for youth with disabilities like Charlene Lo, a graphic design student at Montgomery College in Maryland whom my staff had the pleasure of meeting not long ago. The FY 2015 Pathways to Careers allocation will be used to evaluate the effectiveness of strategies in helping more students like Charlene enter and complete career and technical programs that offer industry-recognized credentials.
Another major focus of our work in FY 2015 will be delivering technical assistance to employers, with special emphasis on ensuring federal contractors and subcontractors are equipped to achieve the goals of the new Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act regulation that goes into effect on March 24. These historic changes will help ensure that qualified people with disabilities have equal opportunity to find, secure and keep good jobs. Two key resources in this regard are the ODEP-funded Job Accommodation Network and Employer Assistance and Resource Network.
We are also pleased to continue to collaborate with the Employment and Training Administration on the Disability Employment Initiative, which works to increase the capacity of American Job Centers to serve youth and adults who are unemployed, underemployed or receiving Social Security disability benefits. Along with all of our planned efforts for the coming year, this program is a vital part of our efforts to improve employment opportunities for people with disabilities.
In the State of the Union address, President Obama also said: “Opportunity is who we are. And the defining project of our generation is to restore that promise. We know where to start: the best measure of opportunity is access to a good job.”
At ODEP, we look forward to turning these words into action.
Kathy Martinez is the assistant secretary of labor for disability employment policy.