Neil Romano - Office of Disability Employment Policy

Neil Romano
OLD SCHOOL: People with disabilities are institutionalized and written off. NEW SCHOOL: People with disabilities are recognized as untapped talent and hired by forward-thinking employers. In this, Part I of a two part interview, Assistant Labor Secretary Neil Romano talks to ABILITY Magazine about the coming revolution in the American workforce:

People with disabilities are the next great wave of diversity in the United States, and they are about to move forward. The Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP) has been talking about that, and I think it’s starting to get some traction. Companies are beginning to realize that people with disabilities have a lot to offer, and it’s time that they take a good, long look at how to hire them, which makes perfect sense to me.

I never assign malevolence to anything that I’ve seen that’s been wrong in the arena of disability. I think sometimes that people try to build this hedge of protection around people who have disabilities, and sometimes it can be so tall that it becomes a form of imprisonment. Perhaps they just don’t believe in people with disabilities.

Sometimes that hits close to home. Here I am, 54 years old, and when I get the call from the White House that I’m going to be nominated for this job, I phone my 84-year-old mother in Brooklyn and say, “Mom, the President has asked me to be the next assistant secretary of labor for disability employment policy.” She gets real quiet, and whispers, “Neil, does he know that you can’t spell?” Which to me was hysterical. It said everything that I was trying to illustrate, and everything that I’m about. People have tended historically to look at disability as the opposite of ability. We focus so much on what people can’t do that we don’t focus on what they can do. Now we’re going after businesses and saying, “You know what? Actually, this group can do a great deal.” So we’ve started to turn the corner on that, and we’re working very hard.

Things have changed dramatically in the last 20 years. People with disabilities are now better educated, and expect more from their educations. They’re saying, “We want to work more.” America is at a very good point in history, because companies need more skilled workers and people with disabilities now have better education, better preparedness and higher expectations. These factors converging are good for people with disabilities and good for the country.

Technology is part of it: It gives us the opportunity to have computers and systems that can level the playing field. I tell people all the time that I owned a company where, for years, I had people do my typing because of my dyslexia. I had people read and answer my email for me, because my greatest fear was that I would be perceived as someone who wasn’t smart. My life changed the day that I discovered spell check. When I sold my business and started working independently, I could sit and write without fear of how people would perceive my written business materials.

At the time, I did cause-oriented marketing for both companies and government. The assignments were health-care related. I’d always had a tremendous desire to get into the whole issue of employment for people with disabilities. It was partly because, for many years, I never got a job that I applied for. If I went out for a PR position 25 or 30 years ago, the first thing they would do is sit me down in front of an IBM Selectric typewriter and say, “Take this test.” When you have dyslexia, that’s probably the scariest thing, second only to being asked to read in public. So there I was, passionate about public relations and marketing, but incapable of taking the test that I needed to get into the field.


So essentially what happened is that I spent the better part of my life either getting jobs that I was recommended for, or jobs that I didn’t have to take a test for. Finally, I got into marketing and public relations by starting my own company. A lot of people with dyslexia in America become entrepreneurs for that very same reason. We can do things; we just have to figure out how to make up for the things we can’t do. Generally, how we do that is we start a business and hire other people to do those things.

I had a meeting with a CEO of a major corporation about a year ago. I went up to this guy’s company, and he rolled out the red carpet for me. He put out a little “Welcome Neil Romano” sign in the front of the lobby and invited lots of people. When I got back home, I wrote an email to this guy, which I thought ended with “Thank you for the warm reception.” I get an email back almost immediately that says, “Worm?” to which I responded, “Yes, worm!” I had no idea what was going on, until my wife read my email and says, “You thanked the gentleman for a worm reception!” (laughs) So I then had to write him a note and say, “Sorry, my spell check didn’t catch that one!”

I remember sitting in the New York City public library for days, sending out hundreds of resumes, finding out that I had made thousands of spelling errors on them, and not getting the job. It’s the kind of thing that can make you beat yourself up. But I got an invaluable lesson from my daughter, who is 16 now, and wanted to bring home a friend. I think she was only eight or nine at the time. So we said, “Sure, bring your friend home.” She had been talking about this girl for some time. They played outside, they played on the monkey bars, they ate together. Finally this child comes over for a visit, and she has cerebral palsy, rather serious CP. When the little girl left, I turned to my daughter at dinner and casually said, “You didn’t mention that she has CP.” And my daughter looked at me as if to say, Why should I mention that? I couldn’t help but think, Boy, is that the right attitude. I felt something burn right through my soul at that moment.

I just related that story again recently, and when the person wanted to write about it, I suggested they talk to my daughter, but she absolutely did not want to expose her friend to that at all. She said, “I don’t even want to have that conversation, Dad.” They’re still best friends today. It’s just one of those things. The experience is terribly powerful for me about how kids think as children, and how that often changes when they get to be adults.

When you see a person with a disability standing next to you, doing the same job that you’re doing, that person suddenly doesn’t seem disabled. They’re just the person next to you doing the work. I did a survey with my foundation a number of years ago, which showed that somewhere near 80 percent of everyone who’s ever worked with a person with a disability, said they performed as well or better than anyone else.

Then there’s the whole issue of people saying that people with disabilities on the job no longer have a disability. But if Bob is blind and is accommodated at work, and then he can’t use public transportation on the way home, he suddenly becomes blind again. If he’s in a wheelchair and there’s no curb cut, then he is at a disadvantage and has a disability. That’s why I always say that work is the engine of social change, because if I work next to Bob, I think, Why shouldn’t there be curb cuts? He’s got to get to work. I want him there to help me get the work done. And then after work, he needs to get home to his family without encountering obstacles.

A CEO said to me recently, “Before I started hiring people with disabilities, I’d see someone on the bus who was visually impaired or someone with CP and think, Poor guy, poor gal. Bad hand, bad deal. Now I see a person with a disability and all I think is, Gee, I wonder where that person works? I wonder what kind of job they have? It dawned on him that his view had changed because he saw people working. And you see the potential for events to cascade from that. I mean, if a person can work and wants to work, then that person should be educated properly and have adequate transportation—the same transportation that I get. That person should have the same opportunity for housing. All those things suddenly become obvious.... continued in ABILITY Magazine

ABILITY Magazine
Other articles in the Robert Patrick issue include Headlines — Voting Gains; Help with Medicare; Humor — Run for Office? Run the Other Way!; Green Pages — Water by Computer, Solar Flashlight; DRLC — Make Polling Places Accessible For All; Best Practices — HP & Boeing; Anita Kaiser — Finding Innovative Ways to Mother; JR Martinez — Soldiering On; Managing Pain — Ear Aches, Tooth Aches; ABILITY's Crossword Puzzle; Events and Conferences... subscribe

Vol 2008 Oct/Nov

More excerpts from the Robert Patrick issue:

Robert Patrick -- Interview

Kennedy Legacy — Anthony Kennedy Shriver - Best Buddies; William Kennedy Smith, MD - iCons

Asst. Secretary of Labor — ‘Everybody Needs to Work’

Meredith Eaton — From Therapist to Actress

The Scent of Cancer

JR Martinez — Soldiering On

Best Practices — HP & Boeing

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