Federal Government Plans Big Push on Hiring Disabled
Federal Government Plans Big Push on Hiring Disabled
By Gail Repsher, Staff Writer
Federal agencies are devising plans to hire 100,000 more workers with disabilities ? many of them in information technology jobs ? within the next five years following a July 26 executive order issued by President Clinton that marked the 10th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Clinton's order directs the agencies to come up with their hiring plans by Sept. 25.
The landmark ADA law provides civil rights protection to disabled people in areas that include housing, transportation and employment, and has been a factor in making the federal workplace more accommodating to people with disabilities.
Information technology jobs are often well-suited for people with disabilities, government officials said. As of March, 5,452 people with disabilities had IT jobs in the executive branch, the Office of Personnel Management reported.
"The administration feels that IT is one area in which the government can increase its representation of people with disabilities," an OPM spokesman said. The OPM will oversee the hiring initiative and begin tracking agencies' progress in October.
Linda Jackson, disability services team leader at the Social Security Administration, agreed.
"IT jobs are quite suited for most people with disabilities if they have the basic qualifications," said Jackson, who added that assistive technologies can put blind workers and workers with low vision "on an equal footing" with other employees.
A push to get disabled workers into IT jobs would also help talent-starved agencies fill critical positions.
"Because of the agencies' need for qualified IT workers, what better opportunity do they have to reach out and touch the disabled population? We really cannot afford to look over anybody," the OPM spokesman said.
The federal government currently employs about 122,000 self-identified people with disabilities. They represent 7.2 percent of the 1.8 million federal work force, not including the Postal Service, Congress or judicial branch.
The new hiring goal was based on current hiring patterns and estimates of future work force applicants, White House spokeswoman Victoria Valentine said.
"We think increasing [the number] by 100,000 is pretty reasonable," Valentine said.
"Since this is something the Clinton administration has spearheaded, we'd like to get some of this done in this administration," Valentine said about the short planning phase.
Putting in place the right technologies is critical to the professional success of many people with disabilities, said Unisys Corp. systems analyst Joy Relton. Technologies developed at the company's Assistive Devices Lab in Reston, Va., are used at agencies such as the Social Security Administration, Internal Revenue Service and the Coast Guard.
"Without the right devices, the person can't do their job and will not remain employed," she said.
Unisys has worked with the Social Security Administration for about five years, retrofitting workstations to meet each disabled worker's needs and teaching each worker to use the assistive technologies. The technologies, which include speech recognition software, help people who have difficulty seeing, hearing, talking or moving around.
Other agencies, including the Transportation Department, Census Bureau and Small Business Administration, have recently expressed interest in the technologies, said Glenn Dell, Unisys' manager of testing and integration.
"Part of the whole process is awareness and education," added Relton, who is blind. "Most agencies have no idea of the disabilities that could be accommodated."
Once Unisys conducts a needs assessment, an adapted workstation can be in place in about a week, Dell said. Machines typically cost 10 percent to 50 percent more than a standard workstation, he said.
While the Assistive Devices Lab provides solutions only to government clients, Dell said he hopes to see orders from the private sector soon.
"I believe corporations will be somewhat behind the federal government in this [accommodation] effort, but not by far," Dell said. "If the government is doing this, [the private sector] is going to have to do it, too. I think it's going to open up the job market in the private sector."
Indeed, the federal government has led the way in hiring people with disabilities and making workplace accommodations for them, said David Grinberg, spokesman for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The EEOC enforces the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Other initiatives this year include the launch of www.disAbility.gov, which provides information about workplace issues and civil rights to disabled people and their families; and a new requirement that agencies include a message in job announcements that reasonable accommodations will be made for applicants with disabilities.
The Social Security Administration has long emphasized the recruitment of people with disabilities, said Paul Barnes, the agency's deputy commissioner for human resources.
"SSA, for as far back as I can remember ? 32 years ? has emphasized the idea of recruiting people who look like the people we serve," Barnes said. Along with assistive devices and training, the agency provides interpreter services, personal assistance and a computer help desk for employees with disabilities.
In fiscal 1999, 480, or 15.3 percent of the agency's new hires, were disabled. Barnes said he expects the same rate of hiring this year. As of July 31, the agency had hired 254 workers with disabilities ? 12.6 percent of its new workers.
Social Security has success in recruiting disabled workers because of its reputation for providing assistive technologies and training, and because of its nationwide recruiting program that reaches out to state vocational rehabilitation agencies and the top tier of college graduates, Barnes said.
"I don't expect we'll have any difficulty meeting the intent of the president's executive order," he said.
Even though agencies such as the Social Security Administration have seen success, "there are a lot of misconceptions about people with disabilities regarding their ability to do the job," Grinberg said. "There still needs to be more done, and that's why this executive order was issued. It's certainly a worthy goal and something possible to do."
According to the executive order, qualified workers with disabilities have been refused employment regardless of their abilities, and many are not aware of job opportunities. The order states that increased outreach and better understanding of reasonable accommodations for people with disabilities will open more jobs to them.
"It is imperative that we knock down the employment barriers that these candidates encounter when seeking a job with the federal government," OPM Director Janice Lachance said in a July 26 memo to heads of executive departments and agencies.
The order does not require agencies to create new positions or change position requirements.