Grassroots organization breaks barriers for feds with disabilities

Wednesday - 9/11/2013, 11:59am EDT

Founder and President of FEDs Jason Olsen on the Federal Drive with Tom Temin and Emily Kopp.

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Government employees are well-versed in acronyms, and now they can add one more to their vocabulary: FEDs.

FEDs, or Federal Employees with Disabilities, was established in 2012 to promote equality in the federal workplace. According to its website, the organization's members include current and former feds with disabilities, people with disabilities who would like to join the federal workforce, and those who are interested in improving rates of employment and retention in the government for people with disabilities.

"Our major focus is on inclusion, participation, retention, promotion — anything that really affects employees with disabilities," said Jason Olsen, founder and president of FEDs, on the Federal Drive with Tom Temin and Emily Kopp.

FEDs held its first annual training conference Monday, called "Pathways to Inclusion." On the agenda were speeches, panels and workshops, including Chai Feldblum, commissioner of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, as keynote speaker. .

For the event, the organization partnered with FEDQ, a national LGBT affinity group.

"One of the great things about having Chai Feldblum come and speak at this event is, he is a member of both the LGBT community and the disability community," Olsen said. "He's really leading the charge for reform to the Section 501 of the Rehabilitation Act."

Section 501 focuses on affirmative action and non-discrimination in federal agencies.

In addition to legal reform, FEDs pushes for shifts in attitudes and perceptions.

"One of the major things is cultural competency for both groups, as well as inclusion, inclusion, inclusion," Olsen said. "The number one thing that both communities really have to overcome is attitudinal barriers."

Olsen said addressing inclusion and attitudinal barriers often comes from employing someone with a disability at an agency. "People work with those folks, and they start to realize, they are not their disability... I know the people who work with myself and others are like, 'you know, this guy is so much more than a man who uses a wheelchair. He's a father, he's a husband, he's an advocate for his community, he's a hard worker.'"

For FEDs specifically, the issue of accommodation for employees with disabilities is the second most pertinent issue, Olsen said. The organization is pushing for revolving funds for accommodation, which allows agencies to put away end-of-year money to be used in the future for accommodations. He said this will help in not only employment of persons with disabilities, but also retention.

"It's great if you hire 100,000 people with disabilities in the federal government. But if you lose 150 because you're not able to retain them, you haven't made much progress," Olsen said.