head shot of Kathy Martinez

Transcript Video on Employment of Older Persons Who Are Visually Impaired

Hello everyone, I’m Kathy Martinez, and I’m the Assistant Secretary of Labor for the Office of Disability Employment Policy or ODEP. In this role, I lead the Department’s efforts to increase the number and quality of opportunities for employment of people with disabilities, of all ages.

Let me start by saying “Happy National Disability Employment Awareness Month!” In case you’re not already aware, NDEAM (National Disability Employment Awareness Month)—which we celebrate annually in October—is a dedicated time to celebrate the many and diverse achievements of Americans with disabilities, today and throughout history. Of course, these workers include not only people born with disabilities, like me, but those who acquire them, whether due to illness or injury or as a natural part of the aging process. In fact, today, a confluence of factors is prompting America to change the way it thinks about age and work. You’ve probably heard the statistics—every day, roughly 10,000 people in the U.S. turn 65. And the number of people in the labor force past age 65 is expected to increase more than three times as fast as the total labor force—mainly due to workers postponing retirement and the infamous “baby boom bubble.”

This so called “graying” of the workforce is having a dramatic effect on the topic of disability and employment. It’s helping redefine it—both in terms of who we include in the disability context and how we think about disability issues. A critical paradigm shift is underway. The conversation is expanding. The older workers are an important part of the discussion—because many of these older workers will develop disabilities as they age, or their existing disabilities may become significant.

One of the most common age-related disabilities is vision loss due to macular degeneration. But vision loss—or any other age-related disability for that matter—doesn’t mean someone can’t work. In fact, America can’t afford to lose these capable, experienced employees. Demographic shifts mean there will be fewer younger people to take their place, and the retirement system will no longer be able to handle millions of early retirees. And let’s not forget the economic downturn of recent years, which forced many folks to delay their retirement. Of course, increased options for workplace flexibility have also led to shifting perceptions of retirement. Today, many people are choosing to work longer, not only for financial reasons, but also for personal satisfaction.

The bottom line is that people need and want to stay on the job longer. And those folks with disabilities can do so successfully if employers provide the workplace accommodations that they need. Providing such accommodations—or workplace supports—is a pretty simple process, actually, And in fact, it’s something most employers already do for their employees—with and without disabilities—every day, even if they don’t realize it. After all, we all need the right tools and work environment to do our jobs!

For example, for many people, a computer is an essential workplace support—they couldn’t do their job without it. So is a smart phone. Or perhaps an ergonomic chair or pen. For folks like me with vision loss, it might be a screen reading software, or a magnifying device. For some, it may not even be something tangible. Rather, it might be flexibility in where or when they do their work, which can assist in managing medical treatment, for instance. Again, it’s pretty simple!

But, unfortunately, there are some employers out there that have misconceptions about workplace accommodations. They assume they are way too expensive and complicated to implement when in fact they are really not. According to research done by the Job Accommodation Network—the leading source of information on this topic—the majority of accommodations cost nothing at all. And for those that do, the cost is often minimal. So one of the things we do at spell out with the Office of Disability Employment Policy is educate employers on the value of providing workplace supports for employees with disabilities, including acquired disabilities. Because doing so is a smart way to retain the talents of older workers. Basically, it’s a highly effective corporate continuity strategy.

But it’s important to note that people with disabilities also have a role to play here. We must understand and be able to articulate what we need to do their job cost effectively. As I mentioned, a great resource to assist in doing this is Job Accommodation Network (JAN), which offers one-on-one guidance on workplace accommodations. To learn more, go to AskJAN.org.

As I mentioned earlier, there is a lot of overlap between the issue of older workers and disability—and that overlap is only going to grow over time. And, I think that is ultimately a good thing, because it’s going to help demystify disability for a lot of people. Just think about it. Until recently, when someone said, “employee with a disability,” most people probably thought about someone like me—someone born with a disability or with an apparent disability, and probably a physical disability. But as the workforce ages, so does the image of disability employment.

This expanded view offers a real opportunity. There is a lot we can learn from how each population adapts to the shifting employment landscape. In fact, in ODEP, we are currently developing a new strategy for engaging employers in a dialogue on disability employment. And this strategy is actually based on research conducted by students at the renowned Wharton School of Business under professor Peter Cappelli—an expert on older workers.

In his book, “Managing the Older Worker,” Dr. Cappelli articulates very well the value of retaining talent—and the strategies companies can use to do so. He notes that they, meaning older workers, not only have institutional knowledge to share with younger workers, but also help convey corporate values to a new generation and make excellent mentors. In short, companies can’t afford to lose them. And neither can the American workforce.

We in ODEP look forward to ensuring that older workers can contribute and celebrating their many diverse achievements this month and every month throughout the year. Thank you very much.