From Awareness to Respect…And Paving the Way

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.

    Share This Guest Blog on: