Kathy Martinez, Assistant Secretary of Labor for Disability Employment Policy Discusses Workforce Development and Economic Development for People with Disabilities

The Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP) was authorized by Congress in the Department of Labor’s FY 2001 appropriation. Recognizing the need for a national policy to ensure that people with disabilities are fully integrated into the 21st Century workforce, the Secretary of Labor delegated authority and assigned responsibility to the Assistant Secretary for Disability Employment Policy. ODEP is a sub-cabinet level policy agency in the Department of Labor.

As Assistant Secretary of Labor, Kathy Martinez leads the Department’s Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP) and advises the U.S. Secretary of Labor on how departmental regulations and policies impact people with disabilities.  In this capacity, she has spearheaded a number of targeted initiatives to increase opportunities for people with disabilities to prepare for and succeed in employment.


Can you summarize the overall mission of ODEP and the government’s commitment to be a model employer for people with disabilities?

Kathy Martinez

Kathy Martinez

At ODEP, we work to influence national policy and promote effective workplace practices that ensure today’s workforce is inclusive of all people—including people with disabilities, such as myself.  As part of this, we help the Federal Government deliver on its commitment to be a model employer of people with disabilities.  In 2010, President Obama issued Executive Order 13548, which called on federal agencies to increase the recruitment and retention of people with disabilities.  ODEP is proud to have been charged to assist Office of Personnel Management in implementing this Executive Order.  We’re even more proud to see that it’s producing results!  Last month, OPM reported that the share of new hires with disabilities is higher than at any point in the last 32 years. 

This is outstanding news, for not only those of us who work to advance disability employment, but also the nation at large.  For the federal workforce to be effective, it must accurately reflect the diverse citizenry it serves. 


ODEP has an impressive list of accomplishments for 2009-2012. Can you highlight some of these accomplishments?

We are proud of our accomplishments over the last several years and look forward to building on the momentum in future years.  One of our big accomplishments from that period is something I just mentioned—helping implement the Executive Order and ensure it delivers on its promise. 

Another area I’m particularly proud of is our work on the Add Us In initiative.  Through this program, we’ve increased employment opportunities for people with disabilities with small and minority-owned businesses by distributing $4.6 million to eight grantees across the nation.  We’ve also made a lot of progress in promoting integrated employment at competitive wages as the preferred goal for individuals with significant disabilities by developing tools and assisting states to adopt such strategies. 

Another major accomplishment I should mention has to do with data.  We’ve established new and better systems for gathering credible, consistent data on disability employment by helping to fund and develop new supplements and tabulations for national employment surveys.  Most notably, we sponsored the addition of disability-related questions to the Current Population Survey.   Many people don’t realize this, but before then, there was no official government data on the employment of people with disabilities.  All data came from disparate sources using different definitions of disability, so there was no way to measure “apples to apples” over time.  That was a major problem. 


How and to what extent has ODEP enhanced the capacity of the Workforce Development System to meet the employment-related needs of people with disabilities?

This is another accomplishment we are proud of.  We’re doing this by collaborating with our sister agency, DOL’s Employment and Training Administration, on the Disability Employment Initiative, or DEI.  Through this program, we issue policy guidance and award grants to state systems to improve education, training and employment outcomes for youth and adults who are unemployed, underemployed, and/or receiving Social Security disability benefits. 

Since 2010, we’ve awarded more than $81 million in grants to 26 states through this initiative.  The latest round of grants—the fourth year of funding—was announced just last September. And within the first four years, we’re already seeing great results. 

Successes reported by DEI grantees and their stakeholders include increased numbers of people with disabilities seeking and receiving American Job Center services and increased enrollment in Workforce Investment Act-funded programs, as well as better data collection regarding these individuals’ employment outcomes.  All grantees have certain requirements in common, such as the hiring of staff with expertise in disability and workforce development to serve as Disability Resource Coordinators, or DRCs.  But they also have latitude in focusing on specific areas, for instance, youth or self-employment.  For example, in New Jersey, an American Job Center planned an afterschool program for students with Individualized Employment Plans, or IEPs.  This program has three main components:  adult readiness, entrepreneurship and financial literary. 

On the other end of the spectrum—and country—the Hawaii State VR agency and local American Job Centers are working to increase capacity for self-employment in rural areas, with a focus on farming and aquaculture.  Washington State is also focusing on self-employment, by partnering with the Washington Access Fund to help individuals with disabilities develop business plans and identify funding sources for self-employment. 

We’re also seeing some great models for cross-agency financial collaboration emerge.  South Dakota is one example.  In that state, the DEI grantee—the Department of Labor and Regulation—formed a close partnership with the state’s Vocational Rehabilitation agency to develop a unique method for sharing reimbursements among Employment Networks.  Employment Networks, or ENs, are authorized employment service providers under the Ticket program.   


What are some of the common misconceptions and stereotypes about people with disabilities in the workplace?

Any myths that exist reflect a lack of exposure to people with disabilities.  Like all people, those of us with disabilities need the right tools and work environments to do our jobs.  A report released last year by the Job Accommodation Network revealed that most—58 percent—of job accommodations for employees with disabilities cost nothing, while those that do typically cost only $500—an outlay that most employers report pays for itself multiple-fold in the form of increased productivity. 

So, in response to employers’ misconceptions, I like to call accommodations “productivity enhancements,” because that’s really what they are.  From technology to flexible work arrangements, accommodations are something most employers already provide employees—with or without disabilities—every day.  Just think about it.  That smart phone you use to stay in touch while away from your desk?  That ergonomic chair you requested to ease strain on your back?  They’re accommodations—whether you identify as a person with a disability or not. 


Overall, why does it make sense for businesses to hire people with disabilities?

It has to do with the value of multiple and diverse perspectives.  Research tells us that groups outperform individuals—even brilliant individuals—working independently.  Even further, groups representing a range of perspectives outperform those with superior, but similar, skill sets.  So by fostering a corporate culture respectful of individual differences, including disabilities, businesses benefit from varied approaches to confronting challenges and achieving success.  That’s why many of today’s most successful companies proudly deem diversity to be a core value. 

In his book The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools, and Societies, University of Michigan researcher Scott Page summarizes this principle about as succinctly as possible: “diversity trumps ability.”  He then goes on to illustrate how employee diversity creates higher performing organizations.  Today more than ever, businesses need people with the ability to adapt to different situations and circumstances. They need people who think divergently.  They need people who think diversely.  As a leader, I’ll always choose a solution that represents an amalgam of opinions and insights rather than the one that approaches a problem from only one angle; because in business, as in society at large, diversity drives innovation.  Disability is an important perspective to have at the table. 

Of course, hiring people with disabilities can also be a positive strategy for expanding market share. Many people don’t realize this, but people with disabilities represent the third largest market share in the U.S. and as with any customer segment, one of the best ways to tap into the disability market is to ensure it is represented in your workforce.


Can you describe the ODEP/Wharton School project to articulate the business case for hiring people with disabilities?

Sure, I’d be happy to; it’s an exciting project.  Obviously, we want employers to hire people with disabilities because it’s the right thing to do—all qualified people need to be given fair and equal opportunity to put their skills and talents to work.  But we also need them to realize that it’s the smart thing to do for their business.  In other words, we need to speak the language of business when we describe the “disability dividend.” 

That’s why we teamed up with Dr. Peter Cappelli of the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School.  Over the last year or so, we’ve worked closely with him and his students to look closely at the myriad issues that impact whether or not companies are disability inclusive in their hiring efforts. 

It probably won’t surprise you to hear that many of the companies that are less enlightened about disability employment have followed practices that have no basis in facts and figures.  Rather, they stem from common myths—those things I talked about earlier, like lack of exposure and misconceptions about accommodations.  So, we originally set out to develop a traditional business case showing the bottom-line benefits people with disabilities bring to a business.  We assumed that was the route to behavior change.  But focus groups and other research conducted in collaboration with Wharton have actually told us that using common business marketing principles is a better approach to countering negative stereotypes.  So, this year, we’re continuing this project, but from a slightly different angle.  We’re developing an employer engagement strategy that segments employers according to their current level of commitment to a disability inclusive workplace. 

Notice I said engagement—the key to this strategy is really two-way communication.  We plan to leverage best practices from inclusive businesses—those that have successfully integrated people with disabilities into their workforce—to serve as a catalyst for those businesses that have yet to do it.  We know that peer-to-peer influence is a strong thing.  We’ll also work to provide the tools, incentives and support that less advanced companies need to create a more inclusive workforce. 


What are some of the government initiatives that integrate workforce development with economic development? How do these help people with disabilities?

Like the workforce development system, economic development initiatives are implemented mainly at the state and local level, to ensure that they take into account local workforce needs and trends.  So the various initiatives that integrate the two really vary depend on where you are.  Regardless, if they’re designed universally—that is, inclusively—any and all of them have the ability to benefit people with disabilities. 

Also, the DEI program I mentioned earlier has a strong economic development dimension to it.  As I said, this program is currently operational in 26 states.  And in those states it works to improve employment outcomes for youth and adults who are unemployed, underemployed and/or receiving disability benefits through exemplary service delivery in the public workforce system, especially the American Job Center network funded by our sister DOL agency, ETA. 

The key to achieving this goal, of course, is partnerships across systems.  These systems include vocational rehabilitation, Medicaid, Social Security, transportation and others, as well as various economic and asset development programs, such as the Ticket-to-Work program.  The DEI is about making connections, and, perhaps most important, it’s about making them where it matters most—at the state and local levels.  That’s critical to effective economic development. 


Is ODEP involved with the Workforce Innovation Fund and other innovative Labor Department initiatives on workforce development?

Directly no but indirectly yes.  As you may know, this fund is a new federal grant program that supports innovative projects that seek to design evidence-based program strategies.  The idea is to identify best practices that may have wide applicability, ones that could be replicated.  And again the key is getting down to the state and local levels—where service delivery actually occurs.  

Overall, we’re seeking ways to design and deliver better systems and remove administrative, statutory and regulatory barriers.  It’s about aligning and integrating services so that we can get disadvantaged adults the skills they need.  Obviously, this includes people with disabilities, so we certainly hope that many of the programs supported have a disability dimension.


Sector-based workforce training geared to the needs of industry is becoming widespread in workforce development.  Can you describe examples of sector-based workforce training and how they benefit people with disabilities?

Sector-based training is a great economic development strategy, because it takes into account regional variations in employers’ workforce needs.  In this way, all types of sector-based training have the ability to benefit people with disabilities.  The best for each individual person likely depends on where they live.  Our nation’s community colleges are doing a great job in this area, and in September of last year, DOL announced $474.5 million in grants to assist them in expanding demand-driven skills training and strengthening their partnerships with local employers.  But, we do know that regardless of geography and regional trends, certain industries are poised to grow in future years. 

One of these is health care.  Health-care occupations dominate the list of jobs predicted to be in most demand in coming years, and there is simply not enough talent in the pipeline.  That is why we’ve done a few things around that industry in particular, hosting summits and partnering with key organizations, like the National Organization of Nurses with Disabilities. 


Can you describe the Employment First State Leadership Mentor Program, and how the Employment First Community of Practice works?

Sure!  When you asked me earlier to highlight some of our accomplishments, I mentioned our work related to integrated employment.  And this program is in many ways an outgrowth of that.  First, it’s important to note that Employment First is not so much an initiative or program, but a concept.  The first conveys that community-based, integrated employment should always be the first option for youth and adults with significant disabilities.  Employment First started at the state level, with a handful of states making it policy and implementing service delivery strategies to make it happen.  And it’s shown exemplary results.  Based on the success of those Employment First states, we at ODEP are now working to promote it nationally in a coordinated manner. 

The Employment First State Leadership Mentor Program is a key part of that.  Under it, four states—three protégé states and one mentor state—received grants.  Iowa, Oregon and Tennessee were the protégés and Washington State was the mentor, because it has really been a trailblazer in this area.  Employment First is another great example of change at the state level; we’re simply serving as a channel for spreading it. 

The Employment First Community of Practice is also a part of that.  It’s a virtual meeting place for representatives from states participating in the grant program, along with many other states, so that they can share ideas and strategies.  It gives them the opportunity to hear directly from leaders in this area across the nation.  Currently 30 states participate in the Employment First Community of Practice.


Can you describe ODEP collaborative initiatives with the Department of Defense, Employer Assistance and Resource Network, Federal Partners in Transition Workgroup?

At ODEP, collaboration is our middle name!  From our inception in 2001, effective partnerships have been critical to our progress, because disability employment is affected by so many other issues.  The Federal Partners in Transition Workgroup is a great example.  We do a lot of work related to youth, in particular making sure that youth grow up with an employment mindset and have the resources and support they need to successfully transition from school to the world of work.  But, there is simply no way that we can achieve the change that’s needed in isolation.  The Federal Partners in Transition Workgroup allows us to do so. 

For example, last year we joined forces to host the first-ever national online dialogue on transition issues.  This dialogue—essentially a virtual town hall—invited members of the public to help us learn what works, what doesn’t and where change is needed, with particular focus on how various federal regulations impact the ability of youth with disabilities to become college or career ready.  The input we got was amazing and is now helping shape our policy strategies going forward.  

Other collaborations include our Technical Assistance centers, which are collaborative themselves.  You mentioned the Employer Assistance and Resource Network in particular.  That’s part of our Employer Technical Assistance center, which is run by Cornell University’s Employment and Disability Institute but has many partners.  Our work with the Department of Defense has to do with the Workforce Recruitment Program, or WRP, which is a fantastic program that facilitates the hiring of college students and recent graduates with disabilities into the federal workforce and by private employers.  It’s been in operation since 1995 and has connected more than 6,000 students and recent graduates with work opportunities.


Can you provide an overview of ODEP strategic partnerships to enhance employment opportunities for people with disabilities with groups like HSC Foundations, U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, Partnership for Public Service, etc.?

As I said, partnerships are critical to ODEP’s work to advance employment opportunities for people with disabilities, and they have been since our inception.  The primary vehicle for formal partnerships is our Alliance program.  Currently we have active Alliances with 10 organizations.  Not surprisingly, many of them focus on employment or disability or both, for example, the Society for Human Resource Management and the U.S. Business Leadership Network.  Others are with non-profits in the disability community, such as the HSC Foundation. 

But our Alliances with groups not so obviously connected to disability are just as, if not more, important, because we know that in order to really move the needle on disability employment, we need to expand the conversation outside the proverbial box.  That is why we have Alliances with non-disability-focused groups like the Higher Education Recruitment Consortium.


How is ODEP working to improve transition outcomes for youth and young adults?

We have a number of great initiatives related to youth.  And they all stem from what we call the Guideposts for Success.  The Guideposts represent what research and practice have identified as key educational and career development interventions that make a positive difference in the lives of all youth, including youth with disabilities.  They were developed following an extensive review of research and best practices in education and workforce development. 

There are five altogether:  school-based preparatory experiences; career preparation and work-based learning experiences; youth development and leadership; connecting activities; and family involvement and supports.  As one example of how we put these Guideposts into action, we recently unveiled an online toolkit to help youth with disabilities understand how an Individualized Learning Plan, or ILP, can help them set and reach their educational and career goals. 

Also, because the ability to manage one’s health is critical to going to school and transitioning into employment, last year we commissioned a study to better understand the relationship between disability, health and wellness, and transition outcomes for youth with disabilities. The findings of this study were recently published.  Another major component of our youth work is our Soft Skills materials—a written curriculum and a set of videos with an accompanying discussion guide designed to sharpen the communication and other soft skills of young workers, both with and without disabilities. 

Of course, the Federal Partners in Transition Workgroup I mentioned earlier is a large component of our youth work. 


About Kathy Martinez
Among ODEP’s chief policy accomplishments during Ms. Martinez’s tenure is assisting the department’s Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs in developing and enacting new rules designed to strengthen Federal contractors’ responsibilities to hire, retain and advance qualified people with disabilities under Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.  Under her leadership, ODEP also played a critical role in President Barack Obama’s July 2010 Executive Order directing all federal agencies to increase the representation of people with disabilities in their workforces. 

Ms. Martinez has also led ODEP in putting policy priorities into practice through several innovative grant programs.  These include Add Us In, through which consortia nationwide are working to increase the capacity of small businesses to employ people with disabilities, and the Employment First State Leadership Mentor Program, through which several states are receiving support to promote community-based, integrated employment as the primary outcome for people with significant disabilities.  Since arriving at ODEP, she has also brought an increased focus to the intersecting issues of technology and disability employment, engaging industry partners and employers in an effort to open virtual doors for people with disabilities.  

Prior to being nominated by the President in 2009, Ms. Martinez was Executive Director of the World Institute on Disability, where she successfully managed a number of initiatives, among them Proyecto Visión, a national technical assistance center to increase employment opportunities for Latinos with disabilities in the U.S.  She has also served on the National Council on Disability, the board of the U.S. Institute of Peace, and the State Department’s advisory committee on disability and foreign policy.

A graduate of San Francisco State University, Ms. Martinez speaks and publishes widely on an array of topics related to disability employment, including the emergence of disability as an essential component of workplace diversity and inclusion and the importance of expectation in ensuring youth with disabilities grow up with an assumption of work — a topic on which Ms. Martinez, who herself was born blind, offers compelling and personal perspective.

One thought on “Kathy Martinez, Assistant Secretary of Labor for Disability Employment Policy Discusses Workforce Development and Economic Development for People with Disabilities

  1. Could you please provide information on how one can acquire the Soft Skills materials (curriculum and Videos) mentioned in this article? These sound like tools that would greatly assist some of our students who have little or no work experience and are preparing for entry into the world of work.
    Thank you.

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