In recognition of Women’s History Month and International Women’s Day celebrated on March 8th, EARN is highlighting the professional achievements of Kathleen Martinez, Assistant Secretary of Labor for the Office of Disability Employment Policy.
Prior to her appointment to the Department of Labor in 2009, Ms. Martinez was the Executive Director of the World Institute on Disability. She is recognized internationally as a leader in the field of disability rights, and has been appointed to the board of the U.S. Institute of Peace, the State Department Advisory Committee on International Disability Policy, and the National Council on Disability. In honor of her accomplishments and impact in the field of disability rights, Ms. Martinez is a 2013 recipient of the Henry Viscardi Achievement Award, which recognizes the work of leaders with disabilities who have made a positive impact on the global disability community.
EARN staff spoke with Assistant Secretary Martinez about her accomplishments in the context of her status as a successful Latina woman who has been blind since birth.
EARN: What advice do you have for young women, particularly those of ethnic or disability minority status who are just starting out in their professional careers?
AS Martinez: Well, I think the first thing we have to do as women is believe that we can and deserve to work. We have to have the expectation that we can work. And then we have to prepare ourselves for the world of work. It’s one thing to say “I want to work” and another thing to decide what we want to do and pursue some type of profession. The main thing first is the expectation and the second, equally as important, is getting the skills so that you really can shine at an interview and show that you really have the qualifications.
EARN: Given your previous work with the World Institute on Disability, how do you think career opportunities for women in the U.S. compare to opportunities for women with disabilities in other parts of the world?
AS Martinez: I think it’s very different. For example, in developing countries many disabled women start small businesses. I worked in Ethiopia, in Namibia and Honduras. In those countries, very often women would take out small or micro loans and have a business in everything from tailoring to raising chickens. I also know of women who were educated and got involved in the women’s movement (in Namibia for example), and one is a member of Parliament. I think for women in developed or developing countries the first step is education. We know that girls and women are often the last to be educated in both developed and developing countries. We need to change that mindset and show that women with disabilities can be educated. And if we get education, it really shows respect to us as human beings. It shows that people expect that we will and can contribute.
EARN: Finally, as you reflect on your career, what would you say have been the key professional successes you have experienced and what have been some of the major challenges you have encountered?
AS Martinez: Well, I would say as a blind person, the main challenge has been the expectations on the part of society in general. So very often, people will see me, and because I have an evident disability, they assume that I don’t work. In fact often when I’m travelling through an airport people sometimes ask me if I’m going on vacation. When I tell them that I do work they have a very hard time believing it – especially when I tell them I work as an assistant secretary for the Department of Labor. There is still this lack of expectation for those with disabilities and for women as well. I think when we are successful as women people assume it’s because we’re “superwomen” and because we are special. Really I’m not special, I grew up with the expectation that I would work and so I worked hard to get to the place that I’m at today. It certainly didn’t happen overnight. I think some of my most important successes are being able to mentor other women with disabilities.
I feel that in the Department of Labor disability is woven into the mission of the agency – it’s not off on some special shelf somewhere. I feel like we collaborate with almost every agency in the Department, the Women’s Bureau, our Bureau of International Labor Office, the Office of Worker’s Compensation Program. We collaborate both on their programmatic side and also work to make sure that they hire people with disabilities. I feel pretty proud of that, that in my tenure we’ve been able to weave in disability throughout the fabric of the agency, so that it’s not a separate issue, but rather it’s really part and parcel of the mission. Acting Secretary Harris takes this very seriously as did the previous Labor Secretary Hilda Solis. Another success I am proud of was working with the Office of Personnel Management on our Executive Order 13548 which the President signed in October of 2010 to increase the employment of people with disabilities in the federal government. We’ve actually done that and you can get the stats on the Office of Personnel Management’s website about how many more people [with disabilities] are now working for the government. If we are woven throughout the fabric of the government then people see us as less special and more as part of their work day. The goal is to make disability employment a standard practice and a normal way of doing business.