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U.S. Disability Employment Efforts Heat Up

By Rebecca R. Hastings, SPHR  3/22/2011
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Federal government agencies witnessed a flurry of activity in early 2011 focused on the recruitment of people with disabilities, spurred on, as SHRM Online has reported, by an executive order that requires such agencies to develop plans to hire a total of 100,000 workers with disabilities by 2015.

On Feb. 16, 2011, several witnesses testified before the Senate Subcommittee on Oversight of Government Management, the Federal Workforce, and the District of Columbia. Kathleen Martinez, assistant secretary for disability employment policy at the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL), offered testimony on ways to improve the hiring of people with disabilities in the federal government.

“The only way to achieve better employment outcomes for people with disabilities is by changing the expectations of prospective and current employees, as well as those of hiring managers and supervisors,” she said. “Federal hiring managers must understand that their agencies will better serve the public if they focus on the abilities of their job applicants and employees, rather than their disabilities.

“Each person that finds a job strengthens the U.S. economy and our nation's financial future,” Martinez continued. “Implementing sound and innovative policies that improve employment opportunities for people with disabilities is especially important because this population continues to be markedly underrepresented in the United States' workforce.”

Yvonne Jones, director, strategic issues, for the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), testified at the hearing and outlined eight practices, identified by the GAO in 2010, that could help agencies mitigate barriers for people with disabilities:

  • Ensure top leadership commitment. “Unless top agency officials are committed, improvements will not happen,” she said.
  • Establish individual and institutional accountability through the use of goals that cover the employment life cycle from recruitment and hiring through retention, return to work, and advancement of individuals with disabilities. Such goals should be accompanied by data collection and monitoring to assess progress toward the goals.
  • Survey the workforce regularly on disability issues. At least annually, and at all stages of the employment life cycle, agencies should provide employees with opportunities to express their opinions, confidentially and otherwise, about agencies’ policies, practices and procedures, and to disclose their disability status if they choose to, she said.
  • Coordinate roles and responsibilities across the organization. Responsibilities related to employment of individuals with disabilities often are dispersed among various departments within federal agencies, such as civil rights/EEO, human resources, workers’ compensation, IT and others, creating barriers to hiring, reasonable accommodations and measurement of results.
  • Train staff at all levels, involving employees with disabilities if possible. Training should address expectations, policies and procedures related to hiring, reasonable accommodations and diversity awareness.
  • Ensure that career development includes employees with disabilities. Career development can aid recruitment, retention and employee satisfaction, she said. Thus, agencies should tap into existing programs such as rotational assignments and mentoring, and ensure they are accessible, as a way of developing employees with disabilities at all stages of employment.
  • Embrace workplace flexibility. A flexible work environment, including the ability to telework, use flextime or job share, can increase and enhance employment opportunities for people with disabilities, particularly when appropriate and tailored support and assistive technology are available.
  • Centralize funding for accommodations. Centralizing funding for accommodations can overcome managers’ concerns about the cost of accommodations and help ensure that employees have access to a broad range of options regardless of staff level, position or location. Such a fund does not remove accountability from first-line managers and supervisors for ensuring that staff members receive reasonable accommodations, however.

“Federal workers are aging on the job, and we know that people are more likely to experience an onset of disability after the age of 50,” Martinez said. “At the same time, experienced workers are also often the most valuable. This means that we must learn to take better advantage of emerging, assistive technologies and workplace flexibility models.”

Other Activities, Resources

On March 7, 2011, DOL’s Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP) posted an online toolkit to assist federal agencies in recruiting, employing and retaining individuals with disabilities. “This online toolkit is designed to make it easy for federal employers to find and hire excellent workers who happen to have disabilities,” said Martinez, in a statement. “Federal agencies—and all employers—are strengthened when they include people with disabilities among their ranks.”

The toolkit leads visitors to a series of resources and links, customized for use by federal agencies, which address:

  • Employer training.
  • Creating a welcoming environment.
  • Recruitment.
  • Hiring.
  • Retention.

Topics include “do's and don'ts” for interviewing, accessibility and accommodations, how to find technical assistance and how to create a pipeline of candidates.

Federal agencies (and private-sector employers) can recruit college students with disabilities by accessing resources such as the Workforce Recruitment Program (WRP) and Career Opportunities for Students with Disabilities (COSD).

In addition to DOL’s efforts, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) heard testimony on the employment of people with mental and intellectual disabilities at its regular meeting held March 15, 2011, and it concluded, as SHRM Online has reported, that myths and fears continue to pose barriers for some individuals with disabilities.

Articles and resources on disability employment can be found on SHRM’s Disability Employment Resource Page.
Rebecca R. Hastings, SPHR, is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

Related Articles:

EEOC: Myths, Fears of Mental Disabilities a Barrier, SHRM Online Diversity Discipline, March 2011

Federal Agencies Face Disability Employment Challenge, SHRM Online Diversity Discipline, March 2011

Quick Links:

SHRM’s Disability Employment Resource Page

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