From Awareness to Respect…And Paving the Way
From Awareness to Respect…And Paving the Way

Categories: Community Life, Employment

A photograph of Mathew McCollough, Executive Director, District of Columbia Developmental Disabilities Council

By Guest Blogger Mathew McCollough, Executive Director, District of Columbia Developmental Disabilities Council

Please Note: The intended audience for this post is employers from all sectors (pubic, private, nonprofit, etc.); however I hope my message will inspire all readers to do what’s right – to stand up and embrace the challenge that is before you, and provide leadership within your programs to recruit and retain the most qualified applicants and employees from diverse backgrounds.

I am a Filipino American with cerebral palsy, commonly known as CP. CP is a developmental disability that normally occurs when there are complications during birth and part of the brain dies due to lack of oxygen. I have a very mild case of CP that affects my motor skills and speech, but there are various levels of severity when it comes to cerebral palsy.

I am also the executive director of the District of Columbia Developmental Disabilities Council (DDC), which is one of 55 State and Territorial Councils on Developmental Disabilities. The DDC seeks to strengthen the voice of people with developmental disabilities and their families in support of greater independence, inclusion, empowerment and the pursuit of life as they choose. Through our advocacy efforts, we strive to create change that eliminates discrimination and removes barriers to full inclusion and acceptance. Needless to say, I am very fortunate and very appreciative to be serving as a guest blogger, communicating and connecting with you at this very moment.

I did something significant already in this post; do you know what it is? It’s something very simple, but it appears to be a great hurdle faced by many supervisors and employees, and it’s probably the greatest obstacle preventing many of our workplaces from reaching their fullest potential. Any clue what I am referencing? I was willing to disclose both my ethnicity and disability. The latter is especially significant.

Why is this significant in your programs? Well, if your employees are willing to disclose their disabilities, you can offer assistance and accommodations when they ask for them. If they are willing to share information as sensitive as this, it means they feel safe and valued. This is important, as you are no doubt striving to have and maintain an environment that treats all of your employees with respect and dignity at all times. There is strength in diversity, and the programs that embrace this value will truly be inclusive of all employees, regardless of their cultural backgrounds and experiences.

Now, ladies and gentleman, the problems people with disabilities are facing regarding employment are longstanding, researched and noted in textbooks. Yet, we have progressed very little in employing those who are members of what some in American society have called “our most vulnerable population.”

As a person with a physical disability growing up in a suburban area of Virginia and participating in community activities, I was often isolated or simply tolerated, and my peers often passed judgment on me based on my differences. Keep in mind, I was always in integrated classrooms and activities, and tried to fit in with all able-bodied children – a battle that I found myself constantly on the losing end of as an adolescent.

Now apply that same stigma to adulthood, and the pressure is magnified ten-fold because “people like me” are viewed as the anomaly instead of the norm. Case in point, less than two percent of federal employees have been identified as people with disabilities. Granted, I do believe that the percentage of federal employees with disabilities is actually slightly higher due to President Obama’s commitment to increasing federal employment of individuals with disabilities (Executive Order 13548), but I understand why the findings are so dismal. 

Toleration or having a sense of being tolerated is probably the worst type of division that all people with disabilities and different cultural backgrounds experience at one time or another. Due to the fact that there is such a stigma to being classified as an individual with a disability, the less than two percent statistic is not surprising at all, as many federal employees may not disclose that they have a disability.

Being simply “tolerated” within your circle of employees or workplace, rather than fully included, means a lack of willingness to bridge that gap of true understanding and acceptance, and breeds disrespect and a lack of dignity. It also communicates to the fortunate few who are working that they got where they are not based on their own merits, but because of someone’s good graces or out of obligation or other pressures.

I feel that this form of “toleration’ is seeping through all of our federal and state agencies and private companies, especially when it comes to the recruitment and retention practices of qualified employees with disabilities. It’s the responsibility of every one of us to embrace peoples’ differences and move forward together as a team, benefiting one another and growing together as a workforce.

Another point to consider is that approximately 85 percent of all disabilities cannot be seen by the naked eye. These are known as hidden disabilities. Think about this for a moment. Based on this information, chances are that you already know an employee who may or may not disclose his or her disability in your office. But does it really matter? In the end, we’re one and the same; we’re all human.

Commissioner Sharon Lewis of the Administration on Developmental Disabilities recently posted on Disability.Blog (From Awareness to Respect, March 26) and her words resonated with me (and with several others across the nation, judging by the comments the blog received). Commissioner Lewis ended her post by stating, “It is time to move beyond awareness,” and recognize that all people with intellectual and developmental disabilities should be valued citizens treated with integrity and respect. I wholeheartedly agree with Commissioner Lewis’ powerful sentiments. I am willing to further this discussion and say, “From awareness to respect – absolutely…and paving the way” so more can follow closely in our footsteps.

I was born into a world that wasn’t meant for me, but I’m willing to participate in this world in hopes of making the path easier for the individuals following closely behind me. I’m not known for talking about what’s important, but instead, my legacy lies in the actions that I take to improve my community. This is why I’m serving as the DDC executive director. It is also important to note that I am one of two current executive directors with developmental disabilities within the network of Developmental Disabilities Councils – a feat that may be considered a rarity.

So if fellow colleagues ask you why they should consider improving upon their workplace by being more inclusive of their employees with disabilities, challenge them by replying:

“This is your life, are you who you want to be?
If not, arise and be everything you hope and dreamed to be.”

People may view me as a dangerous person because my possibilities are great. Only I know my potential, and that’s the reason why I am dangerous. I challenge all supervisors, managers and employees to realize your own potential and the potential of others.

We have been fortunate to be touched and influenced by several revered disability rights leaders who have fought tirelessly for themselves and on the behalf of people with disabilities to be included, integrated and simply be part of the social consciousness of those without disabilities. I am making reference to Justin Dart, Judy Heumann, Ed Roberts, Norman “Bud” Iehl (my grandfather and World War II veteran who acquired physical disabilities in the war) and so many others who have paved the way for the younger generation with disabilities.

With significant civil rights laws and protections (i.e. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act; Individuals with Disabilities Education Act; Americans with Disabilities Act) in place, what should be the overall expectations of our current and future generations as we honor the legacy of the ones who came before us?  Here is my straightforward and honest response:

We (people with disabilities) must take control of our own circumstances;
challenging the ones around us by pushing and strategically
situating ourselves in more leadership, management and other respectful roles
within our communities and places of employment –
We have no more excuses.


In addition to working closely with self-advocates, community members and colleagues to improve the services and supports for people with disabilities, Mat loves spending time with family and friends, going to the movies, listening to rock music and supporting his beloved Chicago Cubs in hopes that they will win a World Series someday! In 2011, he was appointed by President Barack Obama to serve on the U.S. Access Board, an independent federal agency devoted to accessibility for people with disabilities. He has also been featured in What can you do? The Campaign for Disability Employment, funded by the Office of Disability Employment Policy, U.S. Department of Labor.

12 Responses to From Awareness to Respect…And Paving the Way

  1. Randi C. F. says:

    A just society is one in which all members who want to participate, have access to do so. Our democracy is strengthened by the talents and input of all citizens. -Randi C. F.

  2. Rebecca says:

    Wow Matt – so happy to have met you at the DPS this year. What an incredible blog you wrote. Keep an eye out for an email from me as I would love to have you be AUCD’s October ECP guest blogger. Your words of wisdom would benefit many early career professionals. Nice job Matt!

    • Mat says:

      Thanks so much for the compliments, Rebecca! I would be more than happy to submit a blog for the LEND Training Program in the upcoming future! Thanks for the invitation. :)

  3. Gordon Richins says:

    Mathew, this is a very powerful and well written blog. I say this not because we are friends and colleagues but because it tells it like it is. To the point and “straight forward”. Quoting your last response of…

    We (people with disabilities) must take control of our own circumstances;
    challenging the ones around us by pushing and strategically
    situating ourselves in more leadership, management and other respectful roles
    within our communities and places of employment –
    We have no more excuses.

    As an advocate and an individual with a significant disability, I have experienced an enjoyable life of 32 years pre-injury and 24 good years of a humbling life benefitting from the hard work and sacrifice my peers have done. They gave me the opportunity to have the quality of life I and my friends enjoy, and some of my friends within the disability community sometimes take for granted.

    Tonight, May 8, OPTIONS for Independence, Northern Utah’s Center for Independent Living “CIL”, will show the film Lives Worth Living, a documentary that chronicles the history of America’s disability rights movement, produced by the PBS Series Independent Lens. The screening of the film will be followed by a panel discussion on “The Disability Rights Movement: Past, Present, and Future.”

    I’m proud of my presence and involvement within the disability community. I also owe a great deal of love and gratitude to my wonderful wife Faustine, for 36 years of love, companionship and support through the rough times and the many good times. This gratitude extends to Justin Dart who I’ve met twice, Ed Roberts, Helen Roth, Kelly Buckland, Dr. Marvin Fifield and numerous other disability advocates who helped pave the way for me and many others within the community.

    There is still a great deal of work to be done by disability advocates. Mathew, your powerful words and example will certainly be part of the hard work ahead of us. Thank you for the greater message your Blog brings to light for the disability community as well as the greater community we are all a part of.

    Gordon Richins
    Consumer Liaison
    Center for Persons with Disabilities

    • Mat says:

      Dear Gordon:

      Thank you for your significant remarks. I have always held you in the highest esteem and I am extremely honored to have your friendship. Please know that I consider you an amazing leader among giants. With the greatest respect, Mat :)

  4. Cheryl M. says:

    I would love to see my son do more then he is told he can do. The Dr. says he is Mildly Mentally Retarded due to seizures he had from age 4-17 years old. “Developmental disability.” He receives SSI, he’s so smart and good with people, to know Eddie is to love him. He loves video games, rock n roll, and hanging with people. He is always there for friends and family in need, whether it’s needing a helping hand, a talking to, or someone to listen to them. He loves to have fun, too!

    Right now he works at Safeway as a courtesy clerk and has been there for almost 4 years. When he is done for the day, he goes around the story to say goodbye to all his co-workers, they love him!

    What do you suggest to Eddie for a more meaningful or satisfing job?


    A very proud mom who wants the best for her son!

  5. James A. T. Sr. says:

    Dear Sir,

    Fred A. and I worked for 18 years at Milwaukee Wisconsin’s largest Post Office. We were and still are parapeligics. Fred is a veteran and I am not. We both were hired under a program called USPS/disabled veterans. This was to be a pilot program to help the severely disabled Americans into the Federal workforce back in the early 80s. This program cannot be found with a Freedom of Information Act request!

    After being discriminated against in the worst ways, the USPS told us to leave, but we could get a job at any other federal instillation. 11+ years later and several hundred applications to every federal instillation, we have been turned down. The unpolite word is BLACKBALLED! We get discriminated against and the discriminators get to keep their jobs.

    If you look at the OGA federal numbers on hiring, you will find a job rate for the disabled at -5.4% for the last 20 years and regular Americans up 7.8%.

    Unless things have changed in the last year, you are wrong in insisting the federal government is hiring more of us. We disabled Americans get passed over by the federal government for hiring more than any other minority.

    Once you get BLACKBALLED, you will know what I mean and feel. Federal hiring authorities are sandbaggers waiting for their next level GS 15 checks and that is all! The feds pass over disabled Americans and I dare you to prove otherwise.

  6. Steven M. says:

    My son has CP and is being targeted and discriminated against by his college. How can I find someone to help me fight for him? I have posted several pleas for help on this site but have never received a reply. Please help!

    • Disability.Blog Team says:

      Hi Steven,

      I’m sorry we missed your previous comments. Have you tried reaching out to the Protection and Advocacy Agency (P&A) in the state where your son goes to school? P&As provide individuals with disabilities and/or mental illness free assistance in making sure their rights to education, employment opportunities, health care and other services are not violated. You can find contact information by visiting and selecting the state from the list on the right hand side of the page under the “Select a state!” heading.

  7. Daniel S. says:

    Thank you for sharing your story – and it is very inspiring. I wish you the best!

    • Sergey says:

      The makeup of your school environment will definitely influence the classroom interactions and extracurricular activities that take place. I work at an elementary school that does have a diverse makeup, but not by ethnicity. My school is predominately made up of Caucasians, so efforts need to be made and take place to help build their multicultural knowledge. It is very important that those students of different backgrounds feel comfortable and important in the school setting. Planning needs to include meaningful, not just concrete, experiences with multiculturalism that take place in regular classroom setting and during extracurricular activities. It obviously will take a lot more time and effort, but classroom experiences need to be planned based on the interactions that are occurring or may be lacking from gender, race/ethnicity, disabilities, and SES diversities. I think the one of the most effective ways to build a positive classroom environment is for the teacher to truly model these behaviors. Students can tell when your heart is truly in something or if it is “for show”. The more knowledge the staff/faculty have about diversity and all of the influencing factors, then the better affect we can have on our students and their futures.

  8. Bruce B. says:

    I enjoyed your blog. I too have CP – only on the right side of my body. I write as guest blogger for E-Verify and I-9 News on issues of employer compliance in immigration. I’m looking to be a guest blogger on NLRB matters, especially social media, as I worked for the Board for 20 years.