Martinez draws on life experiences in federal role

Photo courtsey of Harvey T. RockwoodThe Obama administration’s lead advisor on employment of people with disabilities was in the Twin Cities March 20 to praise Twin Cities area agencies that boost employment opportunities for people with disabilities.

“You really are nice people!” said Kathleen Martinez, assistant secretary for disability employment policy at the U.S. Department of Labor. Martinez was effusive with praise for Minnesota agencies involved in job opportunities during a forum sponsored by the Minnesota Business Leadership Network at the Minneapolis Convention Center “Minnesota has always been a forward-thinking community,” she said.

Martinez, who is blind, is head of the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP). She advises the Obama administration on all matters related to employment for people with disabilities. She participated in a forum that featured representatives of businesses and non-profit organizations showing innovation in efforts to train and place people with disabilities in well-paying jobs.

Martinez also advises the secretary of labor and works with all Labor Department agencies to lead a comprehensive and coordinated national policy regarding the employment of people with disabilities Martinez said she’s aware of attempts to weaken the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). She said she doubts the effort will get far. Besides, she said too many people, disabled or not, have had a chance to see how ADA is influencing construction that permits easy access for everyone.

Martinez used humor and stories of personal experience to make her points. “I am a woman, a mother, a Latina and a very out member of the GLBT community.” Martinez said.”In other words, I’m a poster child for diversity.” She also joked with the audience, saying, “You know, when I ask a question, you don’t have to raise your hands. I can’t count them anyway.”

Martinez said her experiences as a child with a disability prompted her to pursue a life of service to others. “As a child, we lived very close to strawberry fields and orange groves in southern California and I became increasingly aware of the farm workers who worked in those fields. A student teacher in eighth grade read the book Sweatshops in the Sun by Ronald B. Taylor for me on tape. The book was about child labor on farms, and it profoundly influenced my awareness of working conditions in those fields just a couple blocks from my house. I soon became involved in the youth effort to improve conditions for local farm workers.”

Martinez said that her parents, who had limited education and English skills, feared for her future.

“Fortunately, I was mainstreamed in the public school system from kindergarten through high school,” she said “This experience made me realize early on that I would have to develop different strategies.”

Martinez came to ODEP with a long resume as an internationally recognized disability rights leader specializing in employment, asset building, independent living, international development, diversity and gender issues. Her experiences include tenure as executive director of the California-based World Institute on Disability (WID), director of Proyecto Visión, WID’s National Technical Assistance Center to increase employment opportunities for Latinos with disabilities in the United States, and Access to Assets, an asset-building project to help reduce poverty among people with disabilities. At WID she led the team that produced the acclaimed international webzine DisabilityWorld in English and Spanish.

In 2002 she was appointed by President George W. Bush to the National Council on Disability, an independent federal agency advising the president and Congress on disability policy.

In 2007, she was appointed a member of the board of the U.S. Institute of Peace, an agency created by Congress that is dedicated to research and projects in conflict management. She has also served on a State Department advisory committee on disability and foreign policy.