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Kathleen Martinez. Photo by Shawn Moore, Department of Labor.Kathleen Martinez, Assistant Secretary of Labor for Disability Employment Policy. Photo by Shawn Moore, Department of Labor.


In High School, Kathleen Martinez’s counselors helped her get a job as a punch press operator. As a blind woman, it was one of the few options available to her at the time. Today, Martinez (B.A., ’92) serves as head of the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy.

"Being in the speech and communications department at SF State helped me realize that I had a lot to offer, and that gave me the strength and courage to really pursue a career," says Martinez, a member of the Alumni Hall of Fame. "I had a great group of professors who treated me like any other student, and set the tone for how people with disabilities were viewed."

Professor Mercilee Jenkins remembers organizing a field trip to a play, securing box seats so she could describe onstage activity to Martinez without disturbing other audience members. "Creativity often comes out of limitations," says Jenkins. "Rather than thinking of the situation as a problem, I tried to enhance Kathy’s experience. It also enhanced mine. I had never had to ask myself, what do I need to say, versus what will be there in the dialogue?"

Martinez’s professors also challenged her intellectually. For example, in one of Professor Joe Tuman’s classes, she wanted to give a speech supporting passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act. "Joe had me do just the opposite, arguing why it might be a burden for business,” says Martinez. "I had to research the other side of the argument, which was actually really good for me."

Martinez went on to leadership roles at the World Institute on Disability in Oakland. She directed Proyecto Visión, a national technical assistance center to increase employment opportunities for Latinos with disabilities, and Access to Assets, an asset-building project to help reduce poverty among people with disabilities. She became executive director of the institute in 2005. She also served on the National Council on Disability, the State Department Advisory Committee on Disability and Foreign Policy, and the board of the U.S. Institute of Peace.

In 2009, she was nominated by President Barack Obama and confirmed by the U.S. Senate as the assistant secretary for disability employment policy. "The ultimate goal is to increase employment opportunities for people with disabilities in the public and private sector," she says. "We can’t see disability as an us-and-them issue. As we age, we will probably acquire a disability, or live with someone who has one. Technology allows us to participate in the workforce, and can be the great equalizer."

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