Impact Feature Issue on Employment and Women With Disabilities

Becoming the Ones We've Been Waiting For:
A Story of Work, Community, and Change


Kathy Martinez is Executive Director of the World Institute on Disability (WID) in Oakland, California

I come from a large family of Latino and Native American heritage. My parents did not have much formal education, and their English skills were still poor when I was growing up. Their experience with disability was limited to elderly relatives and neighbors. When I was eight months old, they discovered that I'd probably never be able to see. Both parents felt an overwhelming sense of self-blame, guilt, helplessness and fear for their child. This reaction is almost inevitable given the social stigma, isolation, and misinformation about disabilities in the larger society. Additionally, like many parents from communities of color, my parents knew instinctively that as a Latina and a person with a disability I would experience many layers of barriers and would have to struggle much harder to cut through those if I were to survive (much less, thrive) in the mainstream society.

I was mainstreamed from kindergarten through high school. Now, something important to point out here is that I have a blind sister - for which I am eternally grateful. Although having a second child with a disability was very hard on my parents initially, for me it was very good. She was my touchstone. For example, we shared a secret mode of communication using the position of the Braille dots to spell words out to each other. We also benefited from each other's experience as blind people. We strategized together about how to approach the world.

Although I was vaguely aware of being different at a younger age, when I started kindergarten the experience of being surrounded by kids who could get from one end of the playground to another without crashing into bikes, toys and/or other kids made me fully realize that I was REALLY different. I realized then that I would have to survive differently than most kids and employ different strategies to get through life.

One of the most powerful, although painful, lessons from my school years was that being mainstreamed helped me to hold higher expectations for myself because of the expectations of other children. The other children at my school held me accountable to the highest expectations and let me know the soonest when I let them down. They were cruel, incredibly inventive, and compassionate. While they demanded a lot, they also gave a lot (mostly without condition). For example, some kids would sneak by me quietly to avoid me while others would tell me they did so. Other kids invented alternate versions of tennis, badminton, and volleyball so I could participate. They also gave advice such as reminding me to look directly at a person when speaking to them, and a lot of advice about color, fashion, and style. Mastering and demonstrating these "soft skills" helped me to "assimilate" to the larger culture, which my parents wanted Peggy and me to do as much as possible so that we would have more opportunities open to us. They had learned this painful lesson through their own experience as Latinos in predominantly white environments.

While a teenager, I was involved in both the women's movement and the farm workers movement. Experiences in these social justice environments began to shape my sense of purpose in life - meaning that many of my political ideals were formed and I learned a lot about working with different types of people on a daily basis. I honestly never felt completely "included," though. Organizers of those movements very often found it difficult to get past my blindness and truly utilize the skills they had been so critical in developing in me.

So, in April of 1977 when handed a Braille flyer about a civil rights protest being held in San Francisco by people with disabilities, I had no doubt I had to attend. This event, bringing together hundreds of people with every imaginable disability, and their allies, was the critical development that landed me in the midst of the emerging disability rights movement led in Berkeley by such luminaries as Ed Roberts, Judy Heumann and Gerald Baptiste, an African American, blind advocate working for the Berkeley Center for Independent Living. As a Latina, I was so impressed to see such a varied mix of ethnicities, ages, races and disability types, as well as support from the broader civil rights community. The empowerment, connections, and sense of wholeness from this experience have been a vital part of my own educational and career development.

While on the one hand experiencing that sense of empowerment through involvement in the disability rights movement, I also found that for blind people in that era there were very few employment opportunities for which to prepare. A blind woman could be a rehabilitation counselor, telephone operator, or typist in a typing pool. When I was being assessed by career counselors for the blind during my high school years, I was channeled toward factory types of jobs and ended up getting a job in a lock factory. I was not tracked into the typical jobs for a blind woman because the rehab counselor, knowing I was a Latina, assumed I was a migrant worker, moved around a lot, and wouldn't stay long at a job. Instead I was placed in a rather dangerous work environment where a person with a disability would probably never be placed today: I ran a punch press.

My horizons broadened after high school when I had the opportunity to live in Japan for two months as part of a youth exchange program, to travel to Nicaragua to do organizing for disability rights, and to live in Mexico for awhile. These experiences exposed me to the realities of most disabled people in developing countries: no sidewalks, no transportation, no services, and no awareness of disability as a social issue. The opportunity to get out of the States and experience different cultural values, beliefs and approaches to disability helped me understand my own struggle in the United States where so much emphasis is placed on individuality and independence, and further developed my commitment to disability rights.

Subsequently I worked as the director of blind services for the Center for Independent Living (CIL) in Berkeley, which taught me to work on a daily basis with people with other types of disabilities. Since the concepts of "accommodations" and "personal assistance" were still more on paper than available in the workplace, CIL employees created their own symbiotic support systems, such as blind people carrying out physical tasks, and workers with physical disabilities serving as readers or guides.

In 1988, I entered college at San Francisco State University. My sister and I became the first in our family to pursue postsecondary education, largely because we couldn't perform most blue collar jobs. I graduated with a degree in Speech and Communication Studies. Through my experience in community organizing I had found that I was good at connecting people, communicating with people, and I really enjoyed it. I found meaning in bringing about change through bringing people together. So I chose communication as a degree - though I didn't have a specific career goal in mind.

After graduation, I was hired by the World Institute on Disability (WID) as a Project Assistant with their AIDS project. WID is one of the first U.S.-based, disability-led organizations to promote the independent living philosophy and policies worldwide, and my role was to help build a link between the AIDS community and the disability rights community. Since 2005, I have been serving as the organization's Executive Director. Today my job involves everything from staff supervision to project management and fundraising. In addition, I direct Proyecto VisiĆ³n, the national technical assistance center to increase employment opportunities for Latinos with disabilities; Access to Assets, an initiative to help reduce poverty among people with disabilities; "Nobody Left Behind," a national project to increase the capacity of the Red Cross to integrate people with disabilities within their disaster response procedures; and a series of projects in the governmental and private sectors to promote disability competency. In 2002, I was appointed by President Bush to the National Council on Disability, an independent federal agency advising the President and Congress on disability policy. Three years later I was selected a public member of the newly-established State Department advisory committee on disability and foreign policy, and in 2007 I was appointed a board member of the U.S. Institute of Peace, a Congressionally-created agency dedicated to research and projects in conflict management.

This year I turned 50, and at this time in my life I feel that those of us who are older have a responsibility to be mentors and role models for younger women with disabilities. Other than my sister, I didn't meet another blind person of color until I was pretty old - around 18 or 19. It's embarrassing to admit, but when I met my first female disabled person of color role model I had low expectations of her, and expected something to be "wrong" with her. I was pleasantly surprised when she turned out to be connected to her culture and comfortable with her disability. My advice to other older women with disabilities is to look for ways to support the younger women who are beginning their adult and work lives. And I would encourage younger women to seek out mentors and role models in the multiple communities of which you're a part, because disability is not our only source of identity. We are part of many communities and need to connect with them, make our place in them, and, when necessary, help expand people's comfort level with us by being in their midst and sharing our common commitments.