Number of disabled federal workers hired reaches 32-year high

Disabled advocates say technology allows for greater gains

February 08, 2014|By Yvonne Wenger, The Baltimore Sun

GREENBELT — — With her seeing-eye dog by her side, Denna Lambert works to help ensure that up-and-coming scientists and engineers with disabilities can see a future at NASA.

Lambert, the disability program manager at Goddard Space Flight Center, said she is answering President Barack Obama's call for greater diversity and inclusion in the federal government.

When children, teens and young adults see more and more professionals with disabilities in the federal workforce, she said, they will know what they can achieve — and how they can contribute.

"For me, I am blind, and sometimes my perspective on things may be very different and that perspective may help with solving a problem or finding a solution," said Lambert, who started at the Greenbelt center a decade ago as a contract specialist. "We need people with different backgrounds, different experiences so we can capture everything we can possibly know."

More individuals with disabilities worked for the federal government in 2012 than any time since at least as far back as 1980, the Office of Personnel Management reported recently, and the percentage of workers with disabilities hired each year continues to grow.

Advocates call the progress commendable, but say more can be done to bring down the nearly 12 percent unemployment rate for disabled workers.

The OPM reported that individuals with disabilities accounted for nearly 12 percent of the federal workforce, or about 220,000 people in 2012, up from 7 percent in 1980.

Obama issued an executive order in 2010 directing government agencies to redouble their efforts to recruit, hire and retain individuals with disabilities. That year, disabled workers made up about 10 percent of the federal workforce.

"The federal government has an important interest in reducing discrimination against Americans living with a disability, in eliminating the stigma associated with disability, and in encouraging Americans with disabilities to seek employment in the federal workforce," Obama wrote in the order.

The president challenged federal agencies to hire 100,000 individuals with disabilities by 2015. He placed emphasis on those with certain disabilities, including blindness, deafness, paralysis, epilepsy and intellectual and psychiatric disabilities.

Despite progress, federal agencies have lagged behind Obama's goal. To meet it, the agencies would have needed to hire approximately 20,000 workers with disabilities a year.

Between 2010 and 2012 — the last year for which data is available — federal agencies had hired about 33,000 workers with disabilities.

The Government Accountability Office has warned agencies that they need better planning if the government is going to meet the hiring goal.

Mark Perriello, president of the American Association of People with Disabilities, said agencies need to train hiring managers about how to interview individuals with impairments and dispel misconceptions about bringing them on staff.

One misconception, Perriello said, is that disabled workers need expensive accommodations in order to work. He said the average cost to accommodate a person with a disability is $35.

"It will be a heavy lift for the administration to reach the 100,000-person goal, but I do think it's achievable if people are given the tools they need," Perriello said.

Perriello said the federal government could create a centralized accommodation fund and government-wide accommodation standards to improve hiring for all positions. Giving recruiters and managers additional training and more leeway to hire individuals outside the customary process are other ways to boost opportunities, he said.

Chris Danielsen, a spokesman for the National Federation of the Blind, said many employers assume blind people can't perform certain job tasks, which contributes to a 70 percent unemployment rate for people who are visually impaired. He said the assumption is often incorrect.

"The biggest barrier blind people face is the attitude of the employers," Danielsen said. "There is a lot more possibility for blind people to be employed than there ever has been."

Technology such as 3-D printers and text-to-speech software allow blind people to perform most jobs, Danielsen said. Braille also is becoming increasingly more available through machines that can display the touch print with pins.

"Really there are very few things a blind person can't do with the training or accommodation," he said. "The sky's the limit if the blind person is determined to do the job and federal government is willing to work with the person to do the job."

NASA is in the middle of a five-year plan to boost diversity and inclusion. Efforts include training for managers, participation in job fairs and facilities surveys to identify architectural barriers at NASA centers.

About 7 percent of NASA's workforce in 2012 was disabled, up from about 6.5 percent in 2010.

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