Kathy Martinez, who has been blind from birth, has advocated for decades for the rights of people with disabilities. As the assistant secretary in charge of the US Department of Labor’s Office on Disability Employment Policy, she jets around the country to encourage businesses to hire people who have disabilities. Recently in Boston to address the annual meeting of the National Braille Press, she spoke with Globe correspondent Jack Newsham about the challenges that group still faces and her brief career as a child actor. Here’s what he found out:
1Before getting involved with the disabled rights movement, Martinez wanted to contribute to the causes of immigrant farm workers and women. As a student in California in the 1970s, she recalls being surrounded by activists of many stripes and causes, from Black Panthers to a growing gay rights movement.
“I worked with a youth group that was affiliated with the United Farm Workers. I attended a few meetings, but people really didn’t know what to do with a blind Latina. I made a lot of phone calls.”
These days, Martinez’s main goal is to decrease a persistent employment gap. Only about 20 percent of people with disabilities are employed, compared to 69 percent of able-bodied people. To her, it’s about getting these people from public assistance to financial independence.
“If we don’t have money to spend, if we’re not employed, we’ll still be marginalized. So employment, really, it’s been my life’s work. I think fear is still our biggest barrier.”
And all that money adds up, said Martinez. If people with disabilities faced fewer obstacles to employment, billions of dollars in Social Security and other disability payment programs could be saved.
“We just can’t afford to support so many people. And people are living longer, so it really behooves us all to consider hiring people with disabilities. We have a team that specifically works on issues pertaining to youth. It’s critical that young people grow up expecting to work.
When she talks about adapting workplaces with things like elevators or screen reader software, Martinez argues that they shouldn’t be viewed as “accessibility tools,” but productivity tools.
“We all require a computer. We all require ergonomic chairs. We expect there will be lights. I don’t need lights! If we see it around, it becomes less special.”
While Martinez uses Braille on a daily basis, Braille illiteracy is a growing issue among blind people. Braille was widely taught in the 1960s and ’70s , but the emphasis among educational institutions has turned to audio materials.
“I probably read two audiobooks a week. But with Braille, you can read in your own voice.”
The federal survey used to estimate unemployment rates and gather other labor market data didn’t ask about disabilities on a monthly basis until June 2008. That has made it hard to tell how far the United States has come — or hasn’t — in removing employment barriers to disabled people. But other research has shown that the percentage of disabled people who are working has declined over the past few decades. The last recession made things even harder, Martinez said.
“We were definitely the last hired and the first fired.”
At age 10, in 1969, Martinez appeared on an episode of the television series “Lassie.” In it, she plays a girl named Kathy who was skittish about a walk down a forest trail. However, with the help of the heroic border collie, Kathy conquered her fears.
“They put out a call to recruit blind people, and they wanted honest-to-god blind people, not just kids acting blind.”Jack Newsham can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @TheNewsHam.