Celebrating the "Ability" in Disability: District 7 Marks Disability Awareness Month
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In 1945, Congress enacted a law declaring the first week in October "National Employ the Physically Handicapped Week," in part to encourage employers to hire injured soldiers returning from World War II. Sixty-seven years later, we no longer refer to people with disabilities as handicapped, we recognize that not all impairments are physical, and the week-long observance has been expanded to an entire month. But what has not changed in the past 67 years is the tremendous contributions that people with disabilities make in the workplace. Our task is to remove the physical and attitudinal barriers that prevent them from participating fully.
In keeping with that goal, in October District 7 observed what is now known as National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM) with a series of special events for all employees, sponsored by the Disability Advisory Committee (DAC) and the Office of Equal Employment Opportunity.
“We are pleased to sponsor Disability Employment Awareness Month in District 7,” said DAC Chairperson Seyed Torabzadeh. “This is a great opportunity to foster open and effective communication about issues facing people with disabilities and to celebrate their contributions.”
The Accessibility of Inclusion
NDEAM in District 7 kicked off with a presentation on the “accessibility of inclusion” by motivational speaker and author Dana LaMon. LaMon began losing his sight when he was just four years old, and by fifth grade he was attending the Frances Blend School for the Blind in Los Angeles. “People told me a lot about what I couldn’t do because I’m blind, so I was determined to prove them wrong,” LaMon said.
Prove them wrong he did. He earned a BA in mathematics from Yale and a JD from USC, wrote four books, had a 29-year career as an administrative law judge, and has won numerous awards for public speaking. In his presentation to District 7 employees he spoke about the difficulties he encountered when looking for work, common misperceptions about people with disabilities, and how we can create an inclusive workplace that allows everyone to perform at their best. That includes everything from ensuring the buildings we work in accommodate people with disabilities and that we avoid making assumptions about someone’s skills, experience and expertise based on a disability.
“Every individual wants to matter and to contribute, regardless of the functionality of their eyes or legs. It’s about what’s in our minds and hearts,” said LaMon. “That’s important because an inclusive workplace is a strong workplace.”
Live Art Demonstration
District 7’s NDEAM observance also included an exhibit in the first-floor museum of artwork by Braille Institute students, including ceramics, mosaics, papier maché, sculpture, basketry and painting. This wasn’t the first time Caltrans has exhibited students’ work, but it was the first time the students themselves visited the museum and provided a “Live Art Demonstration.”
Students Louise Arrellano, James Sanchez, Jasmine Oliver Smith and Zena Reubel created artworks in the museum while visitors observed and asked questions. The most common question: how can you create art if you’re blind? Answer: they rely on visual memory, residual vision, touch and imagination. They also have excellent teachers who provide guidance when needed.
“I used to paint with acrylics,” said student Jasmine Oliver Smith, who worked on an intricate papier maché bas relief landscape during the demonstration. “This is like painting with paper, and I love it. I need art in my life regardless of how well I see.”
The final NDEAM event was the Braille Institute’s performance of “The Victory Play,” a story about a wise, aging eagle whose vision impairment renders him vulnerable to the scheming ways of a power-hungry skunk. At heart, it’s a story about compassion and cooperation and looking beyond disabilities to the unique gifts every person offers. The play was performed by nine vision-impaired students, all of whom wore remarkable full-body animal costumes.
In addition to performing the play, Braille Institute students wrote the script, painted the scenery, and made the costumes with the help of a volunteer. After the performance, they answered questions about what it’s like to live with a vision impairment — everything from how to use an iPad (hint: iPads can talk) to how they overcame fears associated with a diagnosis of impending blindness.
The Victory Play and the other events that marked NDEAM in District 7 served as a reminder of the tremendous talents, expertise and passion that people with disabilities bring to the workplace and the important contributions they make to our mission. By continuing to expand opportunities and accessibility for people with disabilities, we become a stronger, more inclusive organization — one that’s better able to serve all Californians.
The Disability Advisory Committee is looking for new members! You don’t need to have a disability to participate, just a desire help. Contact Seyed Torabzadeh or Sylvia Delgado for more information.