National Disability Employment Awareness Month: Teamwork makes anything possible

National Disability Employment Awareness Month traces its roots back to 1945, when Congress declared the first week in October of each year as “National Employ the Physically Handicapped Week.” In 1988, Congress changed the week to one month and gave it the National Disability Employment Awareness Month title. Reflecting on NDEAM, Compass has asked Michael Tangora, the Coast Guard’s NDEAM chairperson, for his perspectives on disability awareness and building a stronger more inclusive workforce.

Cmdr. Tom Cooper and his daughter, Mary, stand with Jim Abbott. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Nicholas Vanderjagt.

Cmdr. Tom Cooper and his daughter, Mary, stand with Jim Abbott. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Nicholas Vanderjagt.

Written by Michael Tangora, deputy assistant commandant for acquisition.

Of the Coast Guard’s 8,700 civil servants, 10 percent report some type of disability, and the majority of them are in positions critical to day-to-day operations that protect the American people. This is not a limiting factor in our organization; rather, it is part of the diversity that defines us.

I am keenly aware of people with disabilities and what they can achieve. My younger brother was born disabled, missing vertebrae in his neck, and it took him longer than most kids to learn to walk. I’m proud to say the brother, who I literally carried on my back as a young boy, has grown to successfully run a warehouse and live on his own.

Vice Adm. Paul Zukunft, Pacific Area commander; Michael Tangora, deputy assistant commandant for acquisition; Jim Abbott; and Cmdr. Darcie Cunningham, Base Los Angeles/Long Beach commanding officer during a National Disability Employment Awareness Month event. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Nicholas Vanderjagt.

Vice Adm. Paul Zukunft, Pacific Area commander; Michael Tangora, deputy assistant commandant for acquisition; Jim Abbott; and Cmdr. Darcie Cunningham, Base Los Angeles/Long Beach commanding officer during a National Disability Employment Awareness Month event. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Nicholas Vanderjagt.

While my brother is my daily reminder and inspiration of how disabilities can be overcome, Coast Guard men and women were recently inspired by Jim Abbott, another person who overcame disabilities to accomplish his dreams.

As a lifelong baseball fan I never missed an opportunity to watch Abbott pitch in the major leagues. I can clearly remember the day, nearly 20 years ago, when Abbott pitched a no-hitter against a Cleveland Indians team that had one of the best hitting lineups in baseball. Those of you who know baseball know that this accomplishment, remarkable in and of itself, was all the more so because Abbott was born without a right hand.

Earlier this month, Abbott shared his personal journey overcoming adversity with more than 250 Coast Guard men and women in San Pedro, Calif. They were joined by Vice Adm. Paul Zukunft, Pacific Area commander, who welcomed the audience and conducted an informal survey, asking attendees to rise if they had parents, children, siblings or close friends with a disability.

By that point, everyone in the audience was standing. It was a stark reminder of the connection we all have with to those living with a disability.

Cmdr. Tom Cooper, executive officer at Air Station Los Angeles, attended with his daughter, Mary. Now 12, she was born missing the fibula in her left leg and had a Syme’s amputation when she was 9 months old. She now competes in soccer and swimming and was a top five Coast Guard Child of the Year in 2010.

Jim Abbott aboard a Coast Guard response boat. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Wendy Chaves.

Jim Abbott aboard a Coast Guard response boat. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Wendy Chaves.

“Jim Abbott is an incredible person and a role model who made such an impact on my daughter,” Cooper said. “He spoke with Mary for about 20 minutes, gave her a signed baseball, and, in fact, he even signed her prosthetic leg. She is trying her best to protect his signature! I remember Jim saying he has two daughters, 12 and 15 I think were their ages, so I think Mary related to him.”

The theme from Abbott’s talk was one that resonates with the Coast Guard: You can accomplish anything through teamwork.

After Abbott shared his story, Coast Guard members took him out for a ride on a new response boat and even let him drive. By day’s end, the service members in attendance were inspired by a man who has never been limited or labeled by a disability, and a former major league pitcher, now an author and public speaker, learned more about the Coast Guard.

As a Coast Guard senior executive, I have seen many cases where, just by making minor workplace accommodations, the service has benefited from the contributions of team members with disabilities. Jim Abbott has given us an example. Whether it is to succeed as a pitcher, a baseball team or a member of the Coast Guard, anything is possible through teamwork.

You can watch video of Abbott’s speech at the Coast Guard’s Visual Information Gallery. To learn more about National Disability Employment Awareness Month, please visit the Office of Disability Employment Policy.

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