Stereotypes had an impact on Kathy Martinez’s life from the start. Her American-born, Spanish-speaking parents often had immigration officers pounding on the door to their home, demanding to see their birth certificates.
Stereotypes are also keeping people with disabilities out of the workforce or forcing them to hide in their places of business. But traditional efforts to create equality may have only ingrained stereotypes. Instead, Martinez said, it’s time to take disabilities off “the special shelf.”
“We have to have the expectation that people with disabilities are good team members,” she said. “Disability is not about ‘us’ and ‘them.’ We’re all an accident away.”
Martinez was featured as one of the Women We Love in our May 2010 magazine.
Martinez, who is assistant secretary of labor in the Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP), spoke to DiversityInc’s audience of chief diversity officers and executives at our two-day diversity event in Washington, D.C. A Latina, a blind woman and a lesbian, Martinez was appointed to ODEP by President George W. Bush, but that administration, unlike the current one, was not comfortable with her talking about her sexual orientation. “If we’re going to talk about inclusivity, we have to talk about being comfortable about who we are,” she said.
Ironically, when it comes to disabilities specifically, people with disabilities may contribute to discomfort in the workplace. Martinez said they may have been brought up not to bring attention to themselves and, therefore, do not ask for reasonable accommodations. “When you go to work, you expect productivity tools. You expect lights. I don’t need the damn lights,” she said. “It’s fine for you to ask for these things, but when we do it, it becomes a big deal. It takes on a negative life of its own.”
Instead, just asking what employees need or how they work can help alleviate the fear people still have of people with disabilities in the workplace. Her best advice: “Hire someone with a disability.”