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Gov. Arnold I. Palacios and Lt. Gov. David M. Apatang pose with advocates and individuals with disabilities last Sept. 28, 2023, in front of the Office of the Governor after a proclamation signing that declared the month of October as National Disability Employment Awareness

Last Sept. 28, 2023, Gov. Arnold I. Palacios and Lt. Gov. David M. Apatang held an intimate gathering of individuals with disabilities and various advocates for a proclamation signing to declare the month of October as National Disability Employment Awareness Month, commonly referred to as NDEAM. “Advancing Access and Equity: Then, Now and Next” is the nationally recognized theme for the month

NDEAM's roots go back to 1945 when Congress enacted a law declaring the first week in October each year "National Employ the Physically Handicapped Week." In 1962, the word "physically" was removed to acknowledge the employment needs and contributions of individuals with all types of disabilities. In 1988, Congress expanded the week to a month and changed the name to "National Disability Employment Awareness Month." Upon its establishment in 2001, the Office of Disability Employment Policy assumed responsibility for NDEAM and has worked to expand its reach and scope ever since.

Our Gov. Palacios (landing a mere few hours off a whirlwind trip to the nation’s capital for meetings with President Joe Biden and other leaders from the Pacific region) pointed out at last week’s ceremony that, “We’ve been doing this every year and I continue to be impressed by [so many of you]. …It’s important that we keep doing everything we can to recognize ‘the valued contributions people with disabilities make in our nation’s workplaces’ and make sure that every citizen is included in any programs or employment opportunities, whether it be in government or in private businesses. It’s important that we continue to advocate for those who may in one way or another have some sort of disability.”

Essentially, he was acknowledging individuals with disabilities at the ceremony who, despite the challenges inherent with having a disability, continue to persevere in the workplace and lead meaningful lives as contributing members of our community.

Among the speakers during the proclamation signing, John Cabrera, a young man who uses a wheelchair as a result of a spinal injury incurred during a car accident when he was 10 years old, shared that (thanks in large part to community advocates and general support from disability-related programs acknowledging his abilities and advocating with him) he has “been gainfully employed for 14 years—10 years with OVR and four with NMPASI.”

For his part, Preston Basa, vice chairperson for the State Rehabilitation Council, former special education teacher and current vice principal of Marianas High School, reminded everyone in a written statement read by Interim Education Commissioner Donna Flores that “NDEAM serves as a platform to bring attention to the importance of creating inclusive workplaces that provide equal opportunities for individuals with disabilities. It encourages employers to hire, retain, and promote people with disabilities, recognizing the unique skills and perspectives they bring to the workforce. Throughout the month of October, various organizations, employers, advocacy groups, and government agencies across the nation conduct events, workshops, and outreach programs to educate the public about disability employment issues and promote a more inclusive workforce.”

Furthermore, he reminded everyone that just two days prior to the proclamation ceremony, “we celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. On Sept. 26, 1973, this important law was passed to ensure that people with disabilities have equal opportunities and access to various aspects of life, just like everyone else. Before this law, life was often much harder for people with disabilities. They faced discrimination, and it was tough to get an education or a good job. Imagine a world where some doors are open to you, but others are closed simply because of who you are or the challenges you face.”

“Fundamentally,” he said, “this law is all about ensuring that people with disabilities are not left behind, that they have the same opportunities as everyone else. It is about removing barriers and opening doors.”

A timely note in the proclamation reads that, “Welcoming the talents of all people, including people with disabilities, is a critical part of our efforts to build an inclusive community and strong economy.” Still, employment of people with disabilities is not commonplace for a variety of factors; unfortunately, in many cases due simply to a lack of will or preconceived notions about people with disabilities from employers. Despite the countless examples of people with disabilities being excellent employees, they still have to contend with prejudice and discrimination often due to perceived inabilities regardless of their actual abilities.

As of August 2023 the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports the unemployment rate for people with disabilities at 7.9% versus 3.8% for their non-disabled peers—more than double. Locally, of 193 individuals who sought VR services in fiscal year 2023, only 31 were or have been employed—somewhere around 16%. For emphasis, that’s just people with disabilities who sought and were deemed eligible for VR services this past fiscal year.

The point being that anything any of us can do to incentivize employers or entice them to think twice before dismissing the possibility of hiring someone with a disability would be welcomed—everyone should be an advocate!

Our Disability Network Partners stand in solidarity around the common mission of helping all people with disabilities to achieve their employment goals, live independent lives as contributing members of our community and in support of their general quest for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Though much has been done and we have come a long way, there is still much more to be done.

In the heartfelt words of our lieutenant governor, “Nobody should be singled out from enjoying all the great resources that God has given us. …All the resources we find and use on this earth (including love, protection and care) should be shared among all. Thank you all for keeping the work and purpose that you serve going.”

For more on NDEAM or the CNMI’s Disability Network Partners, please contact the Office of Vocational Rehabilitation under the Office of the Governor at (670) 322-6537/8 or send us a message here