The following post was originally published on the Department of Labor's Work in Progress blog on October 1, 2012. Kathy Martinez serves as Assistant Secretary, Office of Disability Employment Policy at the agency.
What can YOU do? It's such an interesting question because it's wide open to interpretation. But I've found that most people, especially adults, tend to answer in the context of employment or occupation. And each time they do, it reaffirms my basic belief in the intrinsic value of work.
Put simply, work is fundamental to identity. It means so much more than a paycheck; it offers purpose and the opportunity to lead a more independent, self-directed life for all people—including millions of Americans with disabilities.
I say this with conviction because I am one of those millions of people.
I was born blind. My sister Peggy was also born blind. We were the middle of six children, and there was no diagnosis for our blindness. But from a young age, our parents instilled in us an assumption of work, starting with household chores. Among other things, I had to mow the lawn. (People often inquire how this worked. When I asked my father how I would know which part I had cut and which I still had to do, his response was “You're going to have to take off your shoes.”)
I can't lie. Like most children, I didn't relish chores. But the message my parents sent by requiring me to do them has made all the difference in my life. It taught me the value of work. As Henry Ford once said, “There is joy in work. There is no happiness except in the realization that we have accomplished something.” I agree wholeheartedly. Indeed, work is essential to my self-fulfillment; it's a huge part of who I am. It's the same for Peggy.
But the importance of work extends far beyond any one individual. When all people are able to contribute and be recognized for their abilities, society as a whole reaps the benefits. Local economies are bolstered. Communities are strengthened—just like our family was strengthened when Peggy and I were expected to do our part.
This important principle is at the heart of this year's National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM) theme: “A Strong Workforce is an Inclusive Workforce: What Can YOU Do?” This theme conveys that we all have a role to play—and benefit to gain from—increasing employment opportunities for people with disabilities.
To start, employers must foster workplaces that are welcoming to current and potential employees with disabilities. But the responsibility doesn't stop there. Those of us with disabilities must understand the intrinsic value of work and the skills and talent we have to offer. Youth with disabilities must grow up with the expectation of employment; and parents, educators and other adults of influence in their lives must reinforce this.
Therefore, America's future success requires us to capitalize on the talents of all segments of the population, and the responsibility for making that happen must be shared. There is something everyone can do — every day of every month.
Held annually in October, NDEAM is a national campaign led by Department of Labor's Office of Disability Employment Policy that raises awareness about disability employment issues and celebrates the many and varied contributions of America's workers with disabilities. Employers, schools, and organizations of all sizes and in all communities are encouraged to participate. To learn more, visit the NDEAM Web page.