Kathy Martinez an internationally recognized and disability rights leader, joined Disability Rights Advocates as President/CEO in March 2021 after having spent six years as SVP, Head of Disability and Accessibility Strategy for Wells Fargo. While with Wells Fargo, Kathy helped to weave disability into the overall diversity agenda to expand the bank’s capabilities and programs to better serve both employees and customers with disabilities.
Previously, she served as Assistant Secretary of The Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP) at the U.S. Department of Labor. Martinez led ODEP in putting policy priorities into practice through several innovative grant programs. These include Add Us In, through which a nationwide consortia worked to increase the capacity of small businesses to employ people with disabilities. The grant program also included the Employment First State Leadership Mentor Program, through which several states received support to promote community-based, integrated employment as the primary outcome for people with significant disabilities.
She is currently serving on the board of The American Association of People with Disabilities and has served on the boards of The National Council on Disability, 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, Martinez speaks and publishes on a wide 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 Martinez, who herself was born blind, offers compelling and personal perspective.
Neil Milliken 0:02
Hello, and welcome to axschat. I'm delighted that on IDPD, we're recording this interview with Kathy Martinez. But Deborah and I are members of the WIP board. And Kathy was also at WIP for a very long time so and has a long and glorious history in disability inclusion. So rather than me give out Kathy's CV, Kathy, would you Well, firstly, welcome, would you care to tell us about yourself and how you came to be working in the field?
Kathy Martinez 0:37
Well, first of all, thank you, thank you very much for for inviting me to be a guest on the show. I've been a fan of the show for a long time and, and it's great to meet you all and, and have a conversation. So how did I become part of the disability rights movement? Wow, that's, um, I'm pretty old. So it's been a while since I've been active. Um, I guess it. Of course, it has to do with my childhood, I was born blind. I come from a very large Latino family, there's six kids all told. And two of us happen to be blind. And as a as of now, there's no known reason or cure. So we Peggy is my sister, she's a year younger than me or two years younger than me. We are the two middle kids of six. So as a child, as a blind child, I was expected to do, I was expected to participate in family activities, like doing chores, and you know, being a part of, of games. I had also a very large, extended family. So I got lots of input from various cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents. My parents are originally from New Mexico. So I was able to experience what it's like to live in a rural setting. I spent many summers in New Mexico riding horses and learning how to bale hay and pitch a and, you know, I think I was I was secretly I wanted to be a cowboy. And then, and then I, you know, I grew out of that phase. But I'm still fascinated by sort of the rural life. We in my son, but my parents lived in Southern California, when I was growing up, and we live near strawberry fields. And I remember as a kid, hearing disputes between the workers and the growers, about about what you know, like, in those days in the 1960s, and early 70s, people would weigh their fruit and then get paid immediately. And I would hear these disputes. And I would be like, God, why are they you know, or there's always arguments at the weigh stations. And so I ended up getting involved in in the United Farmworkers youth group. But they did not know what to do with a blind person, they really didn't, they were, you know, there were kind of tickled in a way that in a very patronizing way that I would be interested in this issue. But I would attend meetings and I would often be asked to do phone calls since I could talk and somebody can read me a phone number. And I can Braille it up in my old Perkins brailler. And then, you know, make calls. But I learned a lot about organizing and you know, a lot about oppression that that wasn't my oppression, you know, it wasn't about blindness. So I learned a lot about the world as a as a teenager, you know, it was and then it was in kind of the late 60s, early 70s. And with the women's movement, the LGBTQ movement was getting started. I was part of both of those movements. And finally, I found in the late since mid to late 70s, found the disability rights movement. And when I found it, I you know, I moved up to the Bay Area, there was a protest in 1977 at the federal building, I got a an invite in braille, and I went, I did not go in the building, I will be very clear. I was at the final force in it. But I did not go in the building because at the time I was in a I was at a school for the blind here in the Bay Area. And basically, they knew I was going to go to the protest and they said if you get stuck in the building, you're going to be kicked out of the school. So I was very careful. But that was really a that opened my eyes to you know, the fact that there was such a thing as disability pride. And at that point in time, there was we had a lot of support, you know, the people with disabilities had taken over the federal building in San Francisco to protest the fact that the 504 regulations weren't signed. I know this is very US centric event, but it did spurred Many, many great things. So after that I, you know, I was in a relationship, I lived in Mexico. So I really got to, you know, feel what it was like living in a developing country. My partner and I adopted our son there, and we moved back. And that's really when I started getting really involved in the disability rights movement. My passion has always been economic empowerment, my work with
Kathy Martinez 5:33
you know, various Chambers of Commerce in in the US the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, a lesbian and gay Chamber of Commerce, I was fortunate to have some consultancies with the ILO, where I spent quite a bit of time in Africa. And then, I went on to work for the World Institute on Disability. Excuse me, guys, you know, that is obnoxious for recording. I worked for the World Institute on Disability for for about 16 years where I primarily did international development work. And was able, we had big, very big grants with with Russia, Uzbekistan, and a few very interesting grants with Honduras and El Salvador, right after the the civil war in El Salvador. So we work with disabled veterans on both sides of the of the war. As I said, my passion has been economic empowerment, because I believe that if you know, we don't have access to resources, we won't have power in this country, given this given that we're a capitalist force here in the US, whether we like it or not. So I after, you know, during my international work, and after I focused on economic justice for people with disabilities, which meant starting numerous projects, including a project for Latinos with disabilities, that was completely focused on work, and how do people poor who are Latin X or Latino, if depending on the generation you're from, you know, how do how does our culture influence how we matriculate through the disability service delivery system? So, you know, does the fact that we're disabled and don't speak English? Yes, that does have an impact. What about our fellow Latino brothers and sisters? Are they hiring us? So these are questions that I asked in like 2000. The project went from, like 2003, to 2007, or actually 2003 to 2009. So and, you know, we made some headway, it definitely influenced the work I would do next, in my next career iteration at the Department of Labor's Office of Disability Employment Policy, where I had a project called, and us in working with lots of different minority Chamber of Commerce in this country, you know, African American women, LGBTQ and Latino, and Asian Chamber of chambers of commerce. And, you know, my goal really, was to connect, of people of color. With, you know, the establishments that are run by people of color with those of us with disabilities. To in the message is, hey, you know, many of us, people with disabilities are people of color, we're not all white, and our culture's influence how disability is, you know, how we handle and how we deal with disability. So, since from the US Department of Labor, I decided that we had passed up, President Obama established a an executive order, which really mandated that our federal contractors recruit and hire people with disabilities. And, and, um, and we so we established that that executive order which strengthened the some regulations that, you know, that kind of forced federal contractors to be more intentional about hiring people with disabilities. So I thought, you know, if I'm telling I'm recommending that people go into into the private sector, I should consider doing that, you know, I felt like I'd done.
Kathy Martinez 9:41
I I said, I could, you know, I could, sorry, I'm being distracted by the chat. Um, I, you know, I thought, well, you know, I've done what I could do here at at ODEP. And it's time to move on, which I believe is as disability leaders, it's our role, it's our job to move on to give new people, you know, to make way for new blood new ideas. And so I took a job with Wells Fargo as the, the lead for disability and accessibility strategy. And I was there for six years, it was one of the best experiences of my life because it was the first time honestly, that I had, since since I worked with the form worker group that I worked out of the disability bubble, even though I was the lead for the disability work, you know, it was a first year was really like drinking through a firehose, because A, I had never worked where people didn't understand accommodations, I'd never really worked, you know, in my adult life for where people hadn't worked on a team with a person with a disability. So who so it was a real, it was a one of the best experiences of my life, because I really went in cold, knowing very little I will admit about financial services, too. But I, you know, there was a willingness on the part of Wells Fargo, there was a desire to weave disability into our diversity work at the time. And so I thought we were very successful. I currently am now, I leaving a nonprofit disability law firm, I will admit to not being a lawyer. I am definitely a second class citizen in that regard. But I'm loving the work that I work for the disability rights, I work for a group called Disability Rights Advocates, we as I said, we are a non plump, we are a nonprofit disability law firm, which we do high impact litigation, meaning class action lawsuits that have a very large impact. Up to change, systems, policies, practices, for people with disability, so we, you know, we've sued the the, but the Met the MTA at New York City subway to make it more accessible. We've sued school districts so that disabled kids can get free lunch, which they weren't getting because they were segregated. So the work that we do is, is high impact, high impact litigation. And I've been at Disability Rights Advocates for almost for about nine months now. And here I am.
Debra Ruh 12:34
Wow, that's quite quite the story. And,
Debra Ruh 12:38
and, of course, I know your work. You know, her name really is the honorable Kathy Martinez, because she was confirmed by our Senate and Congress. So she mentioned that she worked for the Office of Disability Employment Policy, which is part of our Department of Labor. But she, she didn't mention that that is the highest ranking position, a person with a disability can hold in the United States government. So she's, I think she downplayed a little bit what she has brought to our community, it is so powerful. She is just a legend, and very proud to work with her and also work with her sister, Peggy, Peggy and I work together so that very, very smart people, but
Debra Ruh 13:20
I, it really was a very powerful position that you held at ODEP. But one thing I love that what you've done, Kathy is like you've tried, you know, advocacy from so many different viewpoints. And I remember when you were at the Department of Labor, you had said to me, I think you know, I think I'm going to my next job, I'm going to go and work with a big corporation, because you're experiencing all the different nuances of working with those different groups. Because I know often, for example, a, you know, as a vendor, I'm a vendor you. So we don't always understand, for example, what Neil has to deal with, when he's trying to guide a toes forward with all of the accessibility disability inclusion, there's so many moving parts. And so I just love that your background is taking you to all these different, you know, places, and now, of course, you're working with the law firm that with lawyers, and I agree with what you're saying, sometimes we think, goodness, we can litigate, and we can sue the heck out of these people. And I love that, you know, recently, you know, we're seeing, you know, more of these corporations want to work with our community, but it's a pretty big deal. What's happening. I feel like there's a lot unfolding right now. But I loved the work that you've done with being a Latino American, you know, and so I just, I think the intersections are so important. Why Kathy, did you why did you know that you had to address them from those lens because I know that we're really proud of both and strong that you're a special advisor to the board of directors, and Neil is on the board of directors. So I love that you're doing that. But I just am so amazed with your work, Kathy. And I know you explained a little bit of it. But, you know, what do you recommend to the younger people that are trying to figure out where do they go? Especially, like you said, you wanted to be a cowboy when you were growing up? So okay, so is that reasonable for me to be a cowboy? When I'm a woman, and a boy?
Kathy Martinez 15:29
And a boy. Right? And
Debra Ruh 15:34
so maybe, maybe it is reasonable. But so, but I also want to make one more comment that another thing that I love about your leadership, and you mentioned that briefly, is that you will not stay at a position for very long, because you want to give younger people with disabilities an opportunity. And I know you and I have talked about this and that you're like, No, I knew that Jennifer was ready. So you know, I was leaving, I knew that there are these talented individuals. And so do we have you and I are the same age? Do we have some kind of obligation to present a legacy for the younger leaders with disabilities that are you know, coming up?
Kathy Martinez 16:18
Well, you asked about four questions. I know I did.
Debra Ruh 16:20
I'm sorry, I had coffee this morning.
Kathy Martinez 16:23
So first, I'll say yes, I believe. And I have, I have felt that, that our leaders have stayed in positions for way too long, in many cases. Because, you know, the world is changing. And we're not always going to be our, you know, the young 25 year olds that we were, the world was a very diff, I'm 63 years old, and the world was very different. When I was 25, you know, rather than then what it is now, so, so I believe we have an obligation, I believe there's enough work for everybody, you know, there is plenty of work to bring disability toward to an equitable place in the society. So yes, I believe it is my duty as an older leader, to make room, you know, to get out of the way. And and there's plenty of work for me to do as somebody, you know, with with my experience. Now to answer your question about, about list, you know, about, you know, the Latino culture and disability. You know, what, I had been working in the international arena for about 20 years and a 2000. I just thought, wow, you know, here I am going outside of the country. And it was a great experience, believe me, I learned how to listen, I think I really did learn how to listen, I hope I learned how to not be an obnoxious American to, you know, tell everybody what to do and how we did it. Because that is not their experience. So, you know, I know I got so much out of it. But But one day, I remember flying in. I think I don't remember where from probably Spain or Russia, because those were some of our last call contracts that I worked on. And, you know, I realized, like, oh, there's so many Latinos here in this country, who are not connected to the Disability Service Delivery System, who don't have access to the rehab systems, and they don't don't know about independent living and what that means the concept of, you know, of self determination. And I'm Judy human, and I had a conversation about it, unfortunately, she was still the assistant secretary at OCERS, of the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitation Services in the department of education in the US, and I and we, we, you know, came up and it wasn't just me and her me, there was a lot of people having this conversation that we should really focus on, you know, on people of color and how culture impacts people's view of disability, and how the intersectionality of race, ethnicity and disability really does impact someone's trajectory and opportunities. So she was genius enough to create a, some grants and when applied for them, and we got it and I we started our project called Proyecto Vision. And it had nothing to do with me being blind. It had to do with the fact that, you know, we we saw a vision for the future of, of lotic you know, led to next folks becoming woven into our movement. And I think that you know, the younger folks definitely have picked up on that they've taken it to a new level through all the Disability Justice work. And and I I think it's critical, but we have to remember, culture plays a huge role in how disability is perceived. And, and, and while the the disability rights movement in the US was really based on kind of middle class values. You know, I was one of the few leaders that was not white, and came from a very different place. And so, you know, I was my I came from, you know, my parents were both very working class and, you know, their English wasn't great when I was a child. And I experienced things, you know, that that resulted from the from their lived experience. Like, if people couldn't understand my mom, they would, they would ask, they would, you know, yell at her, they would speak louder to her. I mean, is that going to help? No, you know, I thought very often, she was disrespected in the disability community. When I was younger, because she wasn't white. I mean, there was a lot of reasons why I felt it was very, it's really critical for our movement to weave culture in as you know, an aspect of a
Kathy Martinez 21:18
dimension of our, you know, of who we are as a disability rights movement. And, and I think, well, you know, I think the world is doing a great job of that people are seeing that we are everyone, we were not just a, you know, an island of white middle class, folks, you know, in the US.
Antonio Vieira 21:41
Katie, I was about to go to ask a question. And then your last words, have, maybe change what I was going to ask, who knows, I went in a completely different direction, because you mentioned something very important that's related with culture. And sometimes we often see organizations and this I need to make a critic here in United States, we're enabling, you know, creating, improving accessibility and creating spaces for the disabled community in other countries, and they want to almost tell the others here is your is our roadmap, and you just have to follow it without asking the others. Maybe you can learn something from you, and bring it to our roadmap. How do what is looking look into our career, in your experience? How should organizations approach in order to enabling these communities across different geographies?
Kathy Martinez 22:42
Well, first of all, one of the things I did the most in my international development years was tear up the plan when we got to the country because it was pointless. I remember going to Siberia and working with with women, it was a group called Arianna in Siberia. And I, you know, I went with somebody who's a brilliant media person. And, you know, we'd asked him, What do you want to learn? What do you want to learn what, and we have this giant plan, okay, and we had a week so today, we're gonna do this tomorrow, we're gonna do this, when we when we got there, I just realized this is almost said a bad word. This is baloney. This is never This is based in is not based in their experience, it is completely separate from their reality. And, and in a way, as much as I think, you know, international trips to the US are important, I think, you know, it gives somebody a different perspective. But if you're gonna bring disabled women here, I it's great, you know, that they get to learn about what's happening in the world and see the US, but in my mind, are disabled people, I should say, Bring somebody from the government bring somebody from other NGOs, because when they go back to the to the country, they're alone with their power, the new power in their minds, but then they go back to the same place that's inaccessible. People have very low expectations of of them. So I really would like to see more international programs, where if we're going to raise the boat of disability, we don't just bring a bunch of, you know, wonderful disabled people to this country. Show him what we've done. I mean, I think that's part of it. I think it's but it's not all of it. We if when I was in Namibia, I was there for about them. I don't know, I think about six weeks. And one of the things I learned I was there to to work with their women's office to, you know, to help bring disabled women. You know, that the issues of disabled women into that the planning of That office because the war had just been, you know, the war had just ended. And there were many disabled women in SWAPO in the, in the early 90s. So, when we got there, you know, it's not our job, the best thing I did was bring everybody together and let them talk to each other, and stay the hell out of the way. I mean, of course, I could give advice, right. But my job was to be a convener and, and a catalyst for conversation. Because what happens, you know, as you know, is what, when, when the when international aid leaves and things to, you know, tend to fall apart? So, I, I believe, you know, that in Namibia. That was, I feel like that was one of my most successful international consultancies. You know, we left with people speaking the Namibian women speaking to each other, the disabled, and maybe a women how to do how to contact the women in the president's office, then you had to contact the press, they knew how to contact other disabled men. So I believe that our job, you know, we have to assess the situation, we have to listen to people where they're at. I mean, I can tell you many stories of when I really, you know, realized I'm an idiot, I, you know, our program is completely wrong. And that's a whole other conversation.
Neil Milliken 26:30
But that's great. So, so I, we wholeheartedly agree with your, your assessment, not not the one that you're an idiot, by the way, the other one, which is that we need to actually learn from other cultures. And that, that we can't assume that the context within which we're operating in our privilege, Technic, techno literate Western democracies, will work in the context of someone in Sub Saharan Africa or in rural India, or in parts of Latin America. So, so at the same time, we can learn from them because they are dealing with the challenges that they face and innovating. So we've, we've taken a really keen interest in access got over the years of trying to find people that are doing things in in countries outside of the Anglosphere. And, and really, you know, so innovators in Colombia and Africa, and we've had a bill who works with Deborah on from from the Middle East as well. And just today, we've we've finished the judging of our inclusion challenge with the German Overseas Development Agency, where we were getting startups to pitch two, for a competition for inclusion in education in Africa. And what was really great was, yes, some of these technologies exist in the West, but not in the way that they're being deployed, and not in a culturally appropriate way, either. So, so they were working with the POS, and they were saying, but yeah, okay, we can hear this stuff. But, but the text to speech voice isn't in my accent, right. Like, it doesn't feel right. Yeah. You know, they were so so and then there were other solutions that had, you know, we're supporting the different local languages. Those things are really important. And also, you know, the fact that they're mobile first, a lot of the time because they don't have a big infrastructure. Yeah. So if you go to Africa, mobile money has been a thing in Africa for decades.
Kathy Martinez 29:02
M PESA? I think M PESA. has been around for what, almost 15 years?
Neil Milliken 29:06
Yeah, exactly. So you know, and here, we're just sort of getting started. You go to China, you know, actually, there's a big thing now, because the government's restricting mobile payments, because they realized that they couldn't control it enough because it was ubiquitous. So so we really ought not to make those assumptions or the you know, we know everything. So I think that's something that we're super interested in. I'm really pleased to hear about the work that you've been doing. In terms of the advocacy work that your organization does. Is it focused just inside the US at the moment or do you have international disability advocates as well?
Kathy Martinez 29:48
Well, at the moment, it is absolutely focused in the US. We have offices in Berkeley, California and New York. We do cases in other parts of the country. And, you know, our goal is to expand geographically. Now that we're in the Zoom world of the zoom, I, it's possible. We have a one lawyer in Chicago. And, you know, it'd be interesting, I have not thought about expanding internationally, there are such great lawyers. I'm speaking I'm thinking of like Janet Lord, and, you know, Stephanie, or de Leyva from women enabled International. They're doing work. We have we actually have not talked about expanding. But you know, I think it's, it's something to think about our work has has made a big difference, the disability rights advocates is 30 years old. And, you know, it started very soon after the ADA was passed, and the landscape was completely open, that a lot of the cases that they won have impacted millions of people disabilities, including myself, you know, around accessible websites around accessible paths of travel, education, transportation, emergency preparedness, ride sharing, you know, we've we have litigation is one tool in the toolkit, it is not, you know, is usually we try to reserve it as the end result. I prefer the, the, the, the art of structured negotiation, because I think when you work with a company, and we and you negotiate a solution together, there, there's a, you know, there's a lot less money spent on lawyers and be you know, it's a mutually beneficial situation, where there's more give and take rather than in a lawsuit. So, DRA has worked with companies and is starting to do that more, you know, do more what we call structured negotiation, so that, you know, so that there's a goodwill on both sides.
Neil Milliken 32:16
We are big fans of Lainey Feingold here, so
Kathy Martinez 32:19
yeah, well, lady. Girl.
Neil Milliken 32:23
Yeah. So Laney Laney the coiner of the term. So volume two. Now, by the way,
Kathy Martinez 32:32
Amy, I'm I think I'm I think she mentioned me in her book, which I'm very proud to be mentioned, because I've worked with her for many, many years on a way to, you know, work with companies, public entities in order to to come to a solution that's mutually beneficial. Yeah.
Neil Milliken 32:52
And I think that this is the aim for all of us that have been in fear for a long time is, yes, litigation is sometimes necessary, but it's a tool of last resort. And we all want to default to collaboration, as far as possible. So, so, it for me, it's great to hear that you're doing this stuff. I'm very interested to see what will happen with international law, especially with the sort of some of these overarching regulations, what we're seeing at the moment is a trend on things like taxation, where there is international agreement that there will be at least a minimum level of taxation for international companies, for example, that that I think, would be really interesting to see how that might carry over into human rights legislation, and how we could then raise the floor globally for for people with disabilities and minorities in general. So, so that was the thought behind my question. So I don't know whether that's something that that might be considered. You've obviously got great, great connections globally, especially with the ILO, etc, whether this would be maybe the next step.
Kathy Martinez 34:14
It would be some, you know, I have not worked with the ILO for quite a while. So, you know, the people I work with, like bomb ransom, and oh, my gosh, I can't remember the woman's name. She's Irish woman. I think they've since retired. I haven't worked worked so much with Steven, although I used to work with Deborah Perry. Anyway, enough name dropping, I think anything we can do to encourage global companies to see whatever taxation may be, you know, they may end up getting, you know, to benefiting the overall workforce and the creativity and innovation. And, you know, strategy. I mean, I see I see See that niche as something that, you know, that we will have to develop expertise in quickly should should incorporate corporate corporations be taxed? And I think, you know, it's it's a long term vision. And I would hope that corporations can see that, that this type of initiative could really raise all boats.
Neil Milliken 35:29
So I'm aware we've probably run out of time. But but just that last thought before we thank our friends that keep us going was I was on a conference yesterday and Carla quatro was talking. She's the Minister for Employment and also for persons with disabilities in Canada. And she said that, actually, if they made the accommodations for all of the disabled people in the workforce in Canada, that were necessary to enable them to work, they would see a 2% increase in their GDP. Absolutely. So so so it's not, it's not asking for it's an investment rather than a tax here. So so this, this is generating economic opportunity. And on on that note, I'll end it because we're out of time and thank Barclays Access, Micro Link, My Clear Text for keeping us on air and captioned. Kathy, been a real pleasure talking with you and I really look forward to you. Joining us on Twitter on Tuesday.
Kathy Martinez 36:37
Thank you so much was my pleasure.
Transcript by Antonio Vieira Santos from AXSChat