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This Latina Is Using Her Own Experience with Blindness to Bring about Change in the Workforce
April 27, 2018
Over the course of her career, Kathy Martinez has worked with the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, served under two administrations, and led Wells Fargo’s Disability and Accessibility strategy — when she was just starting her career, her counselor at the California Department of Rehabilitation believed that her career aspirations would not extend past working at a lock factory, all because she was blind.
“My counselor at the California Department of Rehabilitation had minimal expectations for people with disabilities and tended to offer low-levels jobs with no hope for growth,” explains Martinez. “Although his expectations for me were low, I had people in my life who knew I could do more, and were behind me every step of the way while I pursued my degree.”
While it took Martinez 13 years to graduate from college, the later start in her career has not prevented her from making an impact where it matters most to her — ensuring that those living with disabilities are not discounted.
“My passion is to help create a society and work environment where people with all abilities are able to obtain an education, secure a good job, buy a house, and be successful,” shares Martinez. “This includes building a society that is physically and digitally accessible, and help change attitudes about the capabilities of people with disabilities and our desire to contribute to our communities and corporations.”
Martinez’s own career has helped moved the needle forward in how those with disabilities are both treated and see themselves in the workforce. She has made it a point to both champion inclusivity within companies, while not erasing that humanity and dignity should be prevalent values in a company culture, regardless of the employee.
“My focus is on delivering an experience that recognizes disability as a natural part of the human condition and helping people with disabilities fully engage with the company to succeed financially,” shares Martinez. “With a more accessible workplace, more people with disabilities will be on the payroll rather than rely on benefits and, ultimately, increase their capacity to be productive members of their communities.”
Below Martinez shares further thoughts on how companies should be expanding their cultures to champion those with disabilities, what advice she has for Latinas, and her biggest lesson learned.
Vivian Nunez: What are your goals in changing how those with disabilities are able to access career opportunities?
Kathy Martinez: When I was growing up I never saw people with disabilities who worked at banks unless they were in entry-level jobs. Today financial institutions, like Wells Fargo, are hiring people with disabilities at all levels. I never imagined I would have the job title of senior vice president at Wells Forgo or Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Department of Labor, Office of Disability Employment Policy. And now that I have attained those titles, I want other people, such as Latinos and people with disabilities, to know that they can achieve their professional goals, including the position of CEO.
One of my key goals is to ensure that more people with disabilities are at all levels of the career ladder. That is why was passionate in helping develop and roll out Wells Fargo’s Diverse Leaders Program for People with Diverse Abilities. This unique three-day program enables team members, who identify as individuals with a disability, understand, and embrace their strengths, overcome challenges, and learn how their differences help them add value as leaders on the Wells Fargo team.
Another goal is to get more people to serve as a mentor and mentee to others with disabilities. I serve as a mentor for people of all abilities inside and outside of the company, and continue to learn what it means to be a team member of choice so that I can share that information with the Latino and disabilities communities.
Nunez: What role did you play in the Obama administration?
Martinez: I consider disability an issue that is important to both political parties. From 2009 – 2015 I served as the Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Department of Labor, Office of Disability Employment Policy.
I also worked for President George W. Bush’s administration for seven years, serving as a member of the National Council on Disability and as a member of the U.S. Department of State Advisory Committee on Disability and Foreign Policy.
Nunez: What advice do you have for Latinas who are navigating both a disability and building lasting careers?
Martinez: Find a mentor and set high expectations and goals for yourself. I have had mentors with and without disabilities, men, women, and people of all ethnicities and backgrounds, and have learned something from every one of them.
[Also,] grow a thick skin and be willing to accept honest, constructive feedback. Early in my career, I attended a professional “business attire required” event woefully under dressed. A very kind person pulled me aside and very nicely suggested that I “spend a little money on clothes.” Even though I was embarrassed, I listened to that person and took the advice to heart. Because I am blind, I do not have a good sense of how other people are dressed; I sought the help of friends and colleagues who helped with my wardrobe. Today some people would say I still dress casually, however, now I do it by choice and not by lack of knowledge.
Nunez: What has been your biggest lesson learn throughout your career?
Martinez: My career has taught me many lessons. For example, if you expect yourself to do well, others will hold you to high expectations and call you out when you do not perform. I am forever grateful for the honesty and forthrightness of my colleagues at all stages of my career. Another lesson learned is to always give back by volunteering for tasks/projects and helping colleagues. I have received more back than I have given. Lastly, demand to get paid your worth. People with disabilities and women often assume they do not deserve equal pay.
Nunez: How has your Latino culture molded how you have navigated your career?
Martinez: My Latino culture played a big role in my career. My parents and siblings are very socially conscious and aware of other people’s situations. Their sense of family, duty, and work ethic has inspired me to do my best and succeed.
Nunez: How instrumental was the work you did with the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in further solidifying your career’s mission?
Martinez: When I was the project director for Proyecto Visión, I had the opportunity to work with the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce (USHCC) to help increase employment opportunities for Latinos with disabilities. Making the connection between the USHCC and qualified Latinos with disabilities was important to me as a Latina born blind.
When I first proposed the project, the USHCC leaders while very kind, were skeptical of my ideas. Common comments included, “People would feel sorry for the person and do their work for them,” “There is too much shame in our culture around disability,” and “I don’t have enough money to hire someone out of pity.”
We developed an ongoing dialogue with the businesses about hiring qualified people with disabilities and, with persistence and hard work, our message resonated. However, there is still a lot of shame associated with disabilities. The only way to change that is to make us part of a company’s standard operating practice. Eventually, people’s fears begin to diminish, and we are viewed as equal members of the team.
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