On Friday, July 19, Kathleen Martinez, the U.S. Assistant Secretary for Disability Employment Policy, came from Washington, D.C. to visit with staff and students at Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown, Massachusetts.
Perkins President Steven Rothstein introduced her: "President Obama has a cabinet secretary to advise him on labor issues. When the U.S. Secretary of Labor wants advice about disability policy, he goes to his Assistant Secretary for Disability Employment Policy, Kathy Martinez. We all know the challenges that society faces around people with disabilities getting jobs. She's right there influencing the policy. She's right there personally, too, because she is blind."
Martinez used humor to make her points, relating funny stories from her early days in school and work. She then asked students to name individuals who made a difference in their lives or inspired them to excel, and then shared an audio described public service announcement video in which people with disabilities who have excelled describe their mentors. It is part of "What can you do?" The national campaign aims to heighten employers' expectations of people with disabilities. "At work," Martinez said, "it's what you can do that matters."
Technology provides the tools to connect people who are blind to professional, social and cultural resources as never before. High-tech devices are common to all. Even braille is available via any number of electronic modes. The language skills inherent in braille literacy are indispensable in the workplace and Martinez encouraged students to embrace braille as she waived her hard-copy embossed notes. She also outlined a wide range of ODEP programs designed to jump start transition from school to work for job-ready young adults with disabilities.
Putting young people with disabilities into the work force drives Martinez. "In order to make significant progress, young people with disabilities—like you—must have the opportunity to learn through first-hand experience. The important role employers play in the community is critical. On-the-job training and experience, mentoring, summer jobs and career development are vital to young people with disabilities in gaining independence." After the presentation, Martinez toured Perkins independent living apartments and discussed with Dorinda Rife, Superintendent of Education Programs how apartment living in tandem with jobs at local employers can give older students the dual experience of working and coming home to manage adult life.