As we wrap up Womenâs History month, EARN continues to celebrate the history of women with disabilities and their incredible contributions to the worlds of sport, art, culture and work. Recently, EARN staff spoke with Kathleen Martinez, Assistant Secretary of Labor, Office of Disability Employment Policy and asked for her reflections on the topic.
EARN: The employment rate of women with disabilities is around 30% versus around 36% for men with disabilities. Do you believe women with disabilities face any special challenges in becoming employed as compared to their male counterparts?
Martinez: Whether they have a disability or not, I believe women have always faced discrimination compared to their male counterparts, for lots of different reasons. And that extends to employment. We sometimes call it the “Double Whammy,” meaning we are subject to discrimination both on account of our disability and our gender. Culture has a lot to do with it, as well. In some circles, women with disabilities never even pursue employment or independent living due to age-old attitudes that they should be “taken care of” that they are the responsibility of their family. Compounding the issue is that, in many cultures, women and girls with disabilities are often the last to get an education. So those are certainly two major challenges. But there have also been some positive changes. Until recently, women with disabilities didnât have many role models; we didnât see ourselves reflected in businesses or public service. But today, there are more and more sources of inspiration. We have role models like actress Marlee Matlin and Illinois Congresswoman Tammy Duckworth, who was one of the first female helicopter pilots to fly a combat mission in Operation Iraqi Freedom. Women like them are incredible role models, because they allow young girls with disabilities to identify with their success and aspire for greatness.
EARN: You mentioned that historically there havenât been a lot of role models among women or people with disabilities, just because there hasnât been equity of opportunity within that group. But considering the significance of women with disabilities in history can you think of any prominent contributions made to the world of work by a historic female figure with a disability?
Martinez: One woman I always think of who was very open about her disability was Frida Kahlo, a Mexican artist best known for her self-portraits. After contracting polio as a child, she also experienced a major bus accident and had serious health problems throughout her adult life. And those experiences really influenced her work as an artist. I think she is an incredible example of someone whose disability was woven throughout her work. Of course there is also Helen Keller. And a lot of people do not know that Louisa May Alcott, the woman who wrote Little WomenâaÂ book that has been inspiring young women for more than a centuryâhad a mental health disability, and that Harriet Tubman had epilepsy. Then there is also Barbara Jordan, another American politician and civil rights leader. She was the first Southern Black female elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, and she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1994. She also had multiple sclerosis. I am also reminded of Gina Harper and Laura Float who are both stock brokers. Whether it’s inside or outside the workplace, having role models in all aspects of community life is critical.
EARN: Among women with disabilities, do you have a particular role model?
Martinez: I have many, and I consider myself lucky to have had support and encouragement throughout my life journey. So many people influenced my belief in my own abilities. They showed me that my life would be about more than staying home and collecting Supplemental Security Income. And that spirit of support and expectation started at home. I have a sister who is also blind, and from the beginning, our parents instilled in us a love of learning and an expectation that we would grow up and get a job that we loved. And that is such a crucial factor in the lives of young people with disabilities, and all young people for that matter. Then, in my late teens and early twenties, I had the blessing of knowing people like Judy Heumann, who is an internationally recognized leader in the disability community and a true inspiration. Seeing people like Judyâpeople who had important and fulfilling jobsâreally inspired me to realize that I could work as well; that I could have a career. But I had other influencers, as well. Many were men, many were women, and not all of them had disabilities. The key was that none of them let me get too comfortable. They pushed me hard and always encouraged me to take the next step. They encouraged me to not just talk about what I was going to do, but to actually do it, and then tell someone what I did. That was great advice that really helped me build up my experience.
EARN: How do you think athletics, especially events like the Paralympics, impacts the perception of women with disabilities? And do you think there are implications for employment?
Martinez: Absolutely. You’re probably aware that Amy Purdy, who was the recent Bronze medalist at the Sochi Paralympics in Snowboarding, is now a contestant on the current season of Dancing with the Stars. She is also known for competing in the Amazing Race in 2012. She lost both legs below the knee at the age of 19 due to bacterial meningitis. In 2005, she co-founded Adapted Action Sports to get adapted athletes involved in action sports, arts and music. Now, young kids today have an opportunity that wasn’t always availableâthey can watch the Paralympics on TV. They get to see people like Tatyana McFadden develop their skills and be taken seriouslyâand secure commercial sponsorships, to boot! And to be able to see that is so amazing, because girls with disabilities can then aspire to be like them. Casting Amy Purdy on Dancing with the Stars is an amazing testament to the fact that the media is taking disability a lot more seriously. Her appearance on that show and on the Amazing Race serves to really demystify disability. On that same note, I think that the media played a major role in this by giving the Paralympics television airtime; by saying âthis is important to us and to our sponsors, and we believe that the Paralympics is a viable sports activity that deserves to have an audience.â But, the Paralympicsâ impact on employment is probably greatest when you look at the local level. Across the country, across the world in fact, local Paralympic clubs increase access to sports for people of all levels, not just elite athletes. This is critical to our cause, because research has revealed a positive relationship between involvement in sport and employment for people with disabilities.
EARN: Do you think that media attention is starting to be reflected in changing attitudes in this country and around the world?
Martinez: I think so. I mean itâs slow but surely, if you look at the show Push Girls about four women with disabilities, they are not only playing characters with disabilities, they are women with disabilities. Actor RJ Mitte of Breaking Bad is another example; heâs not a woman, of course, but he is another great example of a person with a disability who plays a person with a disability, and what I love about him is that disability has not been central to the characters he has played. These are definitely examples of what a huge role the media can play in shaping our perceptions of people. Again, itâs the message that folks with disabilities are regular folks with issues just like anybody else. So, in my opinion, the media has great powerâand a great responsibilityâto demystify disability and help create accurate images.
EARN: What advice in general would you give to young women with disabilities about pursuing their dreams?
Martinez: Pursue them. Think big. Play hard. Mentor other women. Itâs really about continuing the dialogue and continuing to bring other women into our community. We want to reduce the âshame factor,â because typically there has been so much shame around disability. The more we are seen in the workplace, and the more people see how we do things, the less mystery disability will have. There is an expression, âWe fear less what we know best,â and if we are in the mix and on your team, if we are in your helicopterâin Congress, in your Labor Department, at Cornell, in your universityâthen the myths will decrease because people will know what it is like to be around a person with a disability. And when the myths are shattered, the fear and shame decreases, and disability becomes what it actually isâjust another part of the natural human condition.