Fear hinders hiring people with disabilities

Thursday - 7/26/2012, 5:00am EDT

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Fear is one of the biggest barriers to the federal government hiring more people with disabilities. That fear comes from managers not knowing how a person with disabilities can do their job — even if they are qualified, said Kathy Martinez, assistant secretary of Labor for the Office of Disability Employment Policy.

"What happens when you hire a person with disabilities is you see how we do our jobs and then the mystery is over and we're not special anymore. We become a part of the fabric of the work culture," said Martinez, who is blind.

This week is the two-year anniversary of President Barack Obama's executive order for agencies to hire 100,000 more people with disabilities by 2015. But the government is not on track to meet that goal, only hiring 20,000 people with disabilities for fiscal 2010 and 2011 combined, according to the Office of Personnel Management. As of fiscal 2010, less than 1 percent of the federal workforce had a targeted disability, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Kathy Martinez, Assistant Secretary of Labor for the Office of Disability Employment Policy

"There's an excuse we hear all the time that folks don't know where to find qualified people with disabilities. First of all, we have to say, Look, we're not looking for charity or a handout. We really want you guys to hire folks that are qualified," Martinez said.

One of those hiring tools is a database of qualified people with disabilities. Shortly after President Obama signed the executive order, OPM hired Bender Consulting Services to provide the list. Hiring managers can search for job seekers by their expertise, including human resources, technology and contracting.

Another hiring tool is eFedLink, a community of practice ODEP launched to help federal employees share best practices related to including people with disabilities.

A third tool is the Workforce Recruitment Program, a joint effort between Labor and the Defense Department. The program places college students and recent graduates with disabilities into both federal internships and permanent jobs. More than 20 agencies regularly use WCP, and 7,000 students have gotten jobs through the program since 1995, Martinez said. Currently, the database contain 2,700 job seekers from all academic backgrounds.

"I would say it's a model strategy to recruit and hire qualified folks with disabilities and to meet the federal goals related to the executive order," Martinez said.

Harassment, lack of accessibility top disability claims

Veta Hurst, senior attorney, Office of Federal Operations, EEOC

The most common type of disability-related claim is harassment by either a supervisor or coworker, said Veta Hurst, senior attorney with the Office of Federal Programs at EEOC.

In fiscal 2010, federal employees filed 5,100 disability claims to EEOC — representing 15.5 percent of all claims.

Another top complaint by feds with disabilities is their workplace's lack of accommodations. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 requires agencies to ensure "reasonable accommodations" for people with disabilities to apply for a job, work on the job and have equal access to the benefits and privileges of employment. That means places like the lunchroom or a fitness room also must be accessible, Hurst said.

Feds with disabilities also filed complaints that managers took unfair disciplinary actions against them.

"What is key when you look at those disciplinary actions is, Was it truly a conduct issue or could it have an issue related to the denial of an accommodation or the delay in providing the accommodation?" Hurst said.

Really, agencies are making accommodations all the time for all employees, Martinez said. For example, take BlackBerries or ergonomic chairs.

"These are all accommodations. It's just that when you're disabled, there's the fear factor that gets in the way, and if you ask for anything, people say, Oh my god, a person with disabilities is costing more. But we all cost something because we're all an investment," Martinez said.

Tight budgets are sometimes an excuse for delaying or denying accommodation. Hurst points to free or low-cost resources available to agencies, such as the Defense Department's Computer/Electronic Accommodations Program and the Agriculture Department's TARGET program.

"It has been very rare those instances where we have made a finding saying that the agency has successfully been able to make the undue hardship defense based on cost," Hurst said.

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