Keith Russell embodies the meaning of National Disability Employment Awareness Month. The MiraCosta College student who works in the library at the Oceanside Campus gets to his job early, gets along well with everyone he interacts with, and is more than eager to put in any extra hours when needed.
“I’ve always believed that people with disabilities are more than capable of being valuable, contributing members of society, and can work as hard or harder than anyone else,” said Russell, 45, whose learning disabilities and health issues haven’t kept him from being just a few classes short of earning an associate degree in communication. “I’m living proof.”
In fact, the MiraCosta College Library, like the rest of the campus, is a beacon of awareness when it comes to the disabled. Several students with disabilities have worked at the library over the years, and a library staff member recently visited Microsoft headquarters in Redmond, Washington, to learn about adaptive technologies and a disability hiring fair.
“We like to give opportunities to all students who want to learn new skills and be a part of what we do in the library in our service to students,” said Library Operations Manager Michelle Ohnstad. “It’s also important for us to create employment opportunities for disabled students where we can to bridge those equity gaps.”
Which is what National Disability Employment Awareness Month is all about. The annual campaign held in October aims to raise awareness about employment issues for the disabled, while also celebrating the many and varied contributions of America's workers with disabilities. Its roots stretch 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, and in 1988 Congress expanded the week to National Disability Employment Awareness Month.
For Russell, the month is yet another sense of validation. A graduate of El Camino High School, Russell said he was often ostracized while growing up and sometimes wondered if he fit in. After working at a few fast-food jobs, he found his home when he enrolled at MiraCosta College as a part-time student in spring 1994 and landed a job as a cashier in the college bookstore. Two years later, he left for a civilian job at a Camp Pendleton military clothing store, where he worked for 16 years.
Returning to MiraCosta in August 2017 to resume his studies, Russell was hired in the library. At the library, Russell performs a number of duties, including shelving library materials and making sure books and other resources are properly stored.
“I love working here,” he said. “The people are genuine and they care about those around them and those who are working for them. Michelle Ohnstad and the entire staff are awesome.”
Ohnstad said the same about Russell. “In terms of his strengths as an employee, Keith is always punctual and happy to be here,” said Ohnstad. “He takes his job seriously and constantly asks to be sure he’s doing a good job. He appreciates having the opportunity to work here because he knows it’s a non-threatening atmosphere where he can be himself. He is also a voracious reader, so I know he enjoys being around so many books and being responsible for putting them away where they belong, so other students can find them. We appreciate Keith’s contribution.”