Expert Update: Representative Tony Coelho Speaks at GCDD Employment Advocacy Day

The following is a transcript of remarks given by Rep. Tony Coehlo at Employment Advocacy Day.

I take the view that if you give me the right to fail then I have the opportunity to succeed. What happens in our country today is so many people ask the question “can you do this if you have a disability?” And I’m saying [employers], how do you know unless you give us the opportunity? You give everybody else the opportunity to fail, why not give us the opportunity to fail?

I always go back to Jerry Lewis. He had telethons (and he was a comedian) and what he’d do is raise money off the back of those of us with disabilities. He’d have somebody come up to the podium – and he’d pat them on the head and say how sorry he was about their disability. Then, he’d send them back into the corner and he would do everything. I don’t want to go to the corner. I want to be part of you. I’ve had epilepsy and seizures for 50 years. I’m 75. That gives you an idea. I just had one last week.

But I have an opportunity. I’ve had the oppor-tunity to work even though I was discriminated against. I was discriminated against by my parents who thought I was possessed by the devil – that’s a cultural thing with a lot of different groups. I always say my Republican friends know I’m possessed, but to have your family think you’re possessed is a bit different. I couldn’t get a job. I was kicked out of the seminary – I wanted to be a priest – all because of epilepsy. And that goes on across the board.

Seventy-five percent of people with disabilities don’t have a job. Why is a job so important? A job is important because we get the opportunity to provide for ourselves and our loved ones. We get an opportunity to have a home and potentially buy a car. We get an opportunity to participate in society just like everybody else.

I’ve said to the last five Presidents of the United States that I don’t know of any group other than ours who wants to pay taxes. We are willing to pay taxes because that means we have a job. We want the opportunity to fail just like everybody else. And if you want to see if we can do the job, give us a job. And if we can’t do it, fire us. There’s nothing that says they can’t if we don’t do the job. And so when people say that they’re afraid to give us a job because they can’t get rid of us, I say “you’re wrong, if we can’t do it you have the right to dismiss us.” But you’ve got to give us the opportunity to fail like you do for everybody else in society. Give us that same opportunity.

I love the fact that you’re pursuing people in the state assembly and state legislature to help them understand Georgia is way behind. Georgia is way behind the rest of the states in providing opportunities for employment. And it’s so important that they recognize that we as a community want this assistance.

We’ll never get the opportunity to fail if you don’t press people to give us that. And, we as a community, have to get aggressively involved politically so that people know that we have votes – that people know that we have influence. And if you aren’t willing to be involved then don’t complain about government not taking care or insisting that you get an opportunity to work.

If you take the fact that 10% of our population are people with disabilities and then you take our loved ones and you take those who care for us – that’s about 20% – that is an amazing part of the population. There is no other group larger than us, except for women. And so everybody else gets an opportunity to participate except for us. Why not?

We don’t participate because we’re not engaged, we’re not involved. So one of my efforts besides advocating for disabilities is to make sure that those of us with disabilities get engaged, be involved. When you go across the street, tell those legislators that you want the opportunity to fail – that’s what counts.

Keep it up. Go for it. Fight. Make a difference.

Tony Coelho has worked to advance the lives of people with disabilities. Diagnosed with epilepsy at 22, Coelho’s work is marked by significant milestones. Among them, he is the primary author and sponsor of the Americans with Disabilities Act. He is a former six term US Congressman from California who specialized in disability rights. He worked with then-President Bill Clinton to establish the Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy and he fathered the United States Business Leadership Network, which partners with corporations to increase the employment of people with disabilities.

To see a video of Tony Coehlo’s speech on Advocacy Day, go to:


Download pdf version of Making a Difference Spring 2017    Download Large Print Version of Making a Difference Spring 2017