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Celebrating Women with Disabilities: An Interview with Kathleen Martinez


Women have always faced discrimination compared to their male counter parts and that extends to employment which is especially challenging to women with disabilities. However, there have been some positive changes. In this blog post U.S. Assistant Secretary of Labor for Disability Employment Policy, Kathleen Martinez, gives you career guidance and encouragement. Please join Kathleen Martinez to celebrate women with disabilities.

The following is the U.S. Department of Labor blog post.

Editor’s note: Although Women’s History Month is behind us, the Employer Assistance and Resource Network continues to celebrate the history of women with disabilities and their incredible contributions to the worlds of sport, art, culture and work. Recently, EARN staff interviewed Assistant Secretary of Labor for Disability Employment Policy Kathleen Martinezon this topic. The following is an excerpt.

EARN: The employment rate of women with disabilities is around 30 percent versus around 36 percent for men with disabilities. Do you believe women with disabilities face any special challenges in becoming employed as compared to their male counterparts?

Martinez: Whether they have a disability or not, I believe women have always faced discrimination compared to their male counterparts, for lots of different reasons. And that extends to employment. We sometimes call it the “Double Whammy,” meaning we are subject to discrimination both on account of our disability and our gender. Culture has a lot to do with it, as well. In some circles, women with disabilities never even pursue employment or independent living due to age-old attitudes that they should be “taken care of” that they are the responsibility of their family. Compounding the issue is that, in many cultures, women and girls with disabilities are often the last to get an education. So those are certainly two major challenges.

But there have also been some positive changes. Until recently, women with disabilities didn’t have many role models; we didn’t see ourselves reflected in businesses or public service. But today, there are more and more sources of inspiration. We have role models like actress Marlee Matlin and Illinois Congresswoman Tammy Duckworth, who was one of the first female helicopter pilots to fly a combat mission in Operation Iraqi Freedom. Women like them are incredible role models, because they allow young girls with disabilities to identify with their success and aspire for greatness.

EARN: You mentioned that historically there haven’t been a lot of role models among women or people with disabilities, just because there hasn’t been equity of opportunity within that group. But considering the significance of women with disabilities in history can you think of any prominent contributions made to the world of work by a historic female figure with a disability?

Martinez: One woman I always think of who was very open about her disability was Frida Kahlo, a Mexican artist best known for her self-portraits. After contracting polio as a child, she also experienced a major bus accident and had serious health problems throughout her adult life. And those experiences really influenced her work as an artist. I think she is an incredible example of someone whose disability was woven throughout her work. Of course there is also Helen Keller. And a lot of people do not know that Louisa May Alcott, the woman who wrote Little Women — a book that has been inspiring young women for more than a century — had a mental health disability, and that Harriet Tubman had epilepsy.

Then there is also Barbara Jordan, another American politician and civil rights leader. She was the first Southern Black female elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, and she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1994. She also had multiple sclerosis. I am also reminded of Gina Harper and Laura Float who are both stock brokers. Whether it’s inside or outside the workplace, having role models in all aspects of community life is critical.

EARN: Among women with disabilities, do you have a particular role model?

Martinez: I have many, and I consider myself lucky to have had support and encouragement throughout my life journey. So many people influenced my belief in my own abilities.

Read the rest of the interview here.



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