by Joyce Bender

(Editor's Note: Joyce Bender is President and CEO of Bender Consulting Services. Please direct questions for Joyce to [email protected]

We spend so much of our time wondering when we are going to change the attitudinal barriers that exist in the minds of employers who still resist employing Americans with disabilities. This is only normal, as it is so hard to understand why employers do not recognize the great value of employing people with great abilities. We, people with significant disabilities, are the largest group unemployed in the United States today. It is frustrating and hard to understand.

In addition, we wonder when school systems will stop labeling children with disabilities and telling parents "don't expect too much from Sam." I have met so many young adults in my life who were told they could not and would not even be able to work, but are working today in competitive areas, and yet that negative labeling continues on.

We wonder why some parents themselves lower the bar of expectations and dreams of their own child. There are times when the real limits imposed on a young child or even a young adult with a disability come from the parents. I wish I could say all of this will stop soon, but it will take time. After all, the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964 and yet we face racism today in America, in the workplace. Ignorance and fear are deeply entrenched and it takes time to dig it out.

I think this year for our new year's resolutions, we should start by agreeing that we cannot wait for the world to change for us -- we must change for the world. I believe we, people with disabilities, can no longer wait for change -- we are the change the world needs today. One by one, we have the power to create change and for far too long we have waited for the cloaks of discrimination to fall off first. They won't.

I am going to focus on five ways we can begin to work on becoming the change. This year, I hope you will make it your year. Don't wait any longer for others to change.

Our first resolution for the new year must be that we will work on changing ourselves by improving our self-esteem. We can do so much if we do not listen to others, but instead focus on our own strengths and dreams. For too long, people with disabilities have been made to feel inferior and have been pitied. Pity, like racism, is the kiss of death for people with disabilities. When you pity someone, you are saying, "I feel sorry for you." We are not inferior in any way; we are just people with disabilities. We must stop listening to the outside world. I do not care if that negative information comes from parents, teachers, friends, or counselors. We must start believing in our own skills and abilities. We must work on resisting pity and building strong self-worth everyday. Remind yourself every day of the great potential you have.

Second, we must work to improve our skills. We must find out what employers are seeking, and if there are skills we do not have, get them. If you do not have the right skill set, you will never be employed competitively.

For example, I heard the former chair of the Federal Reserve Bank, Alan Greenspan, say, "There will be the world of the have's and the have not's, and the have not's will not be computer literate." Today, whether you are a computer programmer or an automotive mechanic or work as an executive assistant, you must be computer literate and at least know the Microsoft Office suite of applications. In addition, you need good English skills, as you will be asked to write, and will use e-mail. You should take classes or go to the library and study to improve your basic skills to be employed.

Third, you must learn to network more. We need to get out and meet people if we want to be known or be part of the community. When you are in college, you should participate in all types of events to meet people in the business world and in your community. If you are in high school, there are many opportunities, such as Disability Mentoring Day, that allow high school students on the third Wednesday of every October to job-shadow at a company and meet business people or people working in federal agencies. You need to get out and meet people to be known.

This brings me to my fourth point, and that is volunteerism. To build character, you must volunteer and give back to the community. This will also help you meet many wonderful people. When you get involved and do volunteer work in your community, you will meet executives and CEOs of major corporations in the United States. It is a great opportunity to build your skills for your resume, meet great contacts, and build character.

I must quote the Honorable Tony Coelho, who so eloquently says, "Whenever you get the chance, take the podium." Congressman Coelho, author of the Americans with Disabilities Act and a man with epilepsy, has never stopped speaking up and speaking out for equality for all Americans with disabilities. His life is a ministry of passion and advocacy for Americans with disabilities. He is my mentor and he should be your role model. This, the final New Year's resolution, is advocacy. We cannot wait for change; we must create change. To create change, you must become an advocate for equality for Americans with disabilities in the areas of employment, education, transportation, and housing. Take the opportunity this year to volunteer to speak at your school, college, church, synagogue, or mosque. Take the opportunity to volunteer with non-profit organizations in your community such as the Epilepsy Foundation or United Cerebral Palsy. Do not sit back -- speak up! Remember, you are the change.

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