By Rudi WilliamsAmerican Forces Press Service
BETHESDA, Md., Dec. 4, 2002 When Richard Eddie Espinosa contracted polio at the age of 18 months, his parents were bombarded with advice to get him out of the family's home because he'd only be a vegetable, never live a normal life, never have a girlfriend, wife or children.
Not only that, medical professionals, family members and friends also told them the young polio victim would destroy the family, and his three older siblings would be psychologically traumatized by having him as part of the family.
That's what Espinosa, 44, told more than 400 attendees as the keynote speaker at the 22nd Annual DoD Disability Awards Ceremony and 15th Annual DoD Disability Forum here Dec. 3. The ceremony also recognized 16 DoD employees with disabilities with secretary of defense certificates for their outstanding contributions to the DoD work force.
Three components were presented the 2002 Secretary of Defense Trophies for Employing People with Disabilities. The trophies are brass cups that travel annually from one winner to the next. The trophies stay in place this year because the same three organizations that won last year are this years winners: Department of Air Force for best military department; Defense Logistics Agency for best mid-size component; and Defense Security Service for best small component.
Ceremony host Charles S. Abell, principal deputy undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, gave the opening remarks and took part in the award presentations. Other officials at the event included Judith C. Gilliom, manager of DoD's program for people with disabilities; Paul M. Meyer, planning committee chairperson for the annual National Symposium: Perspectives on Employment of People with Disabilities; Jane Burke, principal director, Office of the Acting Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Equal Opportunity; and Ginger Groeber, deputy undersecretary of defense for civilian personnel policy.
DoD employs more than 47,000 people with disabilities; more than 6,000 have severe disabilities.
Pointing out that U.S. Census Bureau statistics puts the unemployment rate for people with severe disabilities at 75 percent, Espinosa said the No. 1 barrier isn't the need for a curb cut, elevator, sign language interpreter, documents transposed into Braille or "nothing that we have to throw money at. It's just attitudes.
"But those attitudes are a tough nut to crack, and it requires that each and every one of us do a bit of soul-searching. Sometimes, we are forced to see something within ourselves that we really don't want to see," said Espinosa, a world-class athlete who holds national and international records as a wheelchair sprinter and won a silver medal in the 400-meter dash in the 1988 Paralympic Games in Korea.
"We have to get to a point where we see beyond the hearing aid or the white cane or crutches," he said. "We have to get to a point where we see the capabilities of the person who happens to use the hearing aid or the white cane or the crutches."
Espinosa said as the nation fights to rid the world of terrorism, "we have to bring all of our military, financial and human resources to bear in order to triumph over this radical scourge that is threatening our freedom. We can no longer afford to let millions of qualified people with disabilities remain (among) the unemployed. All of the people must be called to active employment duty."
Noting that for many decades, DoD has been recognized as a leader in the employment of people with disabilities, Espinosa said an example of this is the work with the Department of Labor to operate the work force recruitment program, in which he was a 1980 participant.
"It's a wonderful program where DoD, many other federal agencies and the private sector recruit and hire interns with disabilities," Espinosa said.
He said 217 students with disabilities went through the DoD program last summer. That, he said, is an excellent example of DoD's commitment to providing people with disabilities an opportunity to get valuable work experience.
Espinosa said the summer program changed his entire life by making him realize he could make a difference and help the country become a batter place.
"In my 44 years of living, I've seen tremendous change in how our society views disability," Espinosa said. "When I contracted polio more than 40 years ago, it became apparent that I would never walk again. Doctors, nurses, social workers and all the professionals that were supposed to help guide my parents through this issue, and even relatives after a while, told my parents to just send me away, to forget about me."
He said about a year before his father died in May 2000, he "cleansed his soul" by telling him, with tears in his eyes, that he once considered killing his son and then turning the gun on himself.
"He'd reached a breaking point," said Espinosa, who added that he and his wife are expecting a baby girl next March. "He told me that he decided he didn't want his little baby boy to live that miserable life."
But before his father could carry out his tragic plan, Espinosa's mother told him to "Get that thought out of your head, because Ed is going to be fine."
"And with that sentence, my mom saved both of our souls," Espinosa said. "Something in my dad's head clicked. He realized that mom was right. No matter what anyone else said, he and mom did the very best to raise me to be just like any of their other kids."
His father then told him "something that will stick with me until my death. He said they talked about how ironic it was that I accomplished more than any of the other seven children. He said that my achievements in life allowed them to experience more than they could have ever imagined.
"Not too bad for a guy who was originally doomed to a life of misery," said the founder and president of REELife Solutions, a private firm, which offers training and consulting on disability issues. He travels throughout the country providing advice and counsel to businesses and government agencies.
"Given an opportunity, everyone has something to contribute," he noted. "Even someone who has been doomed by almost everybody to a life of misery.
"I know the 16 award recipients being honored here today have made a difference in the lives of others," he added.
The 16 employees with disabilities who received awards for outstanding performance are:
U.S. Marines, Sailors Conduct Rope Suspension Training on Moron Air Base, Spain