Kathy Martinez’s Introduction to ODEP Resources for Older Workers with Vision Loss
Hello, my name is Kathy Martinez and I am the Assistant Secretary of the US Department of Labor's Office of Disability Employment Policy, which we like to refer to as ODEP. This year ODEP is proud to celebrate its 10th anniversary. At ODEP we're working on many things, but our true mission is simple: to help employers hire and retain workers with disabilities. In short, ODEP works to ensure today's workplace is inclusive of all people, including those of us with disabilities.
Disability affects all of us. It's not “them/us”, it's “we.” And it's time we all stop thinking that disability happens to other people.
I was born blind, but statistics predict that 3-in-10 people will acquire a disability, such as low vision or blindness, at some point in their lives.
For those of us facing low vision and blindness, we are fortunate to have AFB's Senior website. It is filled with useful information on dealing with vision loss and I thank you AFB for asking me to contribute additional information related to employment.
Employment not only provides us with the income we need to maintain our lifestyles but it provides us with a connection to society and contributes to our feelings of self-worth.
Thirty years ago, people were expected to work as long as they remained healthy. If they developed a chronic illness or permanent disability, they were expected to quit their jobs or retire. And God forbid if you were born with a disability like I was! You were expected to stay home and watch TV while living on a very meager disability benefit, regardless of your training, talent or level of education.
Not so today. The number of people in the labor force aged 65 and older is expected to increase more than three times as fast as the total labor force, due, in part, to workers postponing retirement and that infamous baby boom bubble.
If the recession has taught us anything, it's that people are staying on the job longer —and for those acquiring age-related disabilities, you can do so successfully if your employers work with you to provide the supports you need.
We're all accommodated in some way. On our jobs, we have desks, chairs, lights, computers. In fact, these are considered productivity tools, not accommodations, and one productivity tool that every single person uses on the job is technology. Technology is the great equalizer for people with disabilities looking for a job or trying to advance our professions.
As a long-time user of assistive technology and as someone who has had the experience of being involved in the evolution of accessible technology, I can attest to its importance to our success in school, work, and being full participants in the community.
ODEP and the technology industry are working together to increase the understanding of IT developers about accessibility. We've helped support a task force that is developing a set of recommendations that we'll be releasing very soon. The recommendations point the way for the IT industry, customers like us, and government to adopt assistive technology.
I know you want to run for the exits when I say “I'm from Washington and I'm here to help.” But seriously, we have some great resources to help both individuals with disabilities and those who support us, and our employers.
We have ODEP's website, as well as our sister website, Disability.GOV, to point you to useful information on benefits, civil rights, community life, education, emergency preparedness, health, housing, technology, transportation, and of course employment.
And ODEP funds two free services which directly focus on employment and accommodations:
- EARN is a resource for employers seeking to recruit, hire, and retain qualified employees with disabilities.
- JAN, the Job Accommodation Network, is the leading confidential source of guidance on workplace accommodations and related disability employment issues.
To get started finding these and other related resources, go to www.dol.gov/odep.
Today, our country benefits from an increasingly diverse workforce which includes individuals like us with disabilities—people of all ages and abilities—bringing our unique perspectives and rich ideas to solving problems, creating products, serving customers, and strengthening our economy.
So what can you do?
- Employers can openly foster workplaces that are welcoming to all workers—including workers with disabilities.
- People like us with disabilities can understand the intrinsic value of work and our role in the country's economic success.
- Youth with disabilities can grow up with the expectation of employment.
- And parents, educators, and others can strengthen this expectation by cultivating a clear vision of work and community participation.
There's an anonymous adage that says, “The bend in the road is not the end of the road unless you refuse to take the turn.”
All of us need to “take this turn” by opening our minds and our workplaces to all employees, including those of us with disabilities. In order to strengthen our nation, we simply cannot afford not to.