Feds make progress in disability hiring, but lofty goal looms large

Thursday - 7/26/2012, 6:01pm EDT

OPM Director John Berry speaks to Federal Drive's Emily Kopp

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The federal government now employs more full-time workers with disabilities than it has at any time over the past 20 years, according to a new report from the Office of Personnel Management.

By the end of fiscal 2011, people with disabilities comprised 11 percent of the federal workforce — a slight increase over 2010 levels, the report stated. People with disabilities represented 14.7 percent of new hires last fiscal year — 18,738 employees.

Overall, the federal government employed a total of 204,189 people with disabilities at the end of the fiscal year. Of those, 17,845 were employees in specifically targeted categories, such as blindness, deafness and intellectual disability, from which the government has historically hired few employees.

The latest numbers include the hiring of veterans who are 30 percent or more disabled.

OPM Director John Berry, in a letter to President Barack Obama on the agency's progress, said OPM considers the need to bolster the number of federally employed disabled workers a "key component of human resource strategies."

Obama sets lofty goal

In July 2010, Obama issued an executive order directing agencies to hire 100,000 additional people with disabilities over the following five years.

Since Obama issued the order, agencies have submitted action plans for hiring more disabled employees. With the help of outside consultants, OPM also created a list of job candidates with disabilities. In addition, thousands of federal employees have been trained in recruiting techniques, and OPM has required hiring managers to take mandatory online HR University training.

In fiscal 2009, the last full year before Obama issued the executive order, the federal government employed 168,883 employees with disabilities — 9.6 percent of the workforce, according to data provided by OPM — which includes partially disabled veterans. Both the actual number of people with disabilities employed by the federal government as well as their share of the federal workforce as a percentage has continued to tick up every year.

Coupled with the more than 18,700 people with disabilities hired in fiscal 2011, the government hired nearly 19,000 in 2010. That brings the total number of employees with disabilities hired over the past two years to about 37,700 employees.

That appears to be at odds with a Government Accountability Office review in May. OPM was not on track to meet the executive order's goal, the report found, having only hired 20,000 disabled employees over the course of fiscal 2010 and 2011, according to OPM-provided data.

However, the data OPM provided to GAO at the time did not include the hiring of partially disabled veterans, which OPM now uses in its hiring tally.

Have feds 'flipped the needle' on disability hiring?

In an interview with Federal News Radio, Berry said the report shows the government is on track to meet the President's goal and agencies are "moving smartly" toward fulfilling it.

When the President pledged to up the ranks of federal employees with disabilities, the trend line was actually going in reverse, Berry said.

"When the president made that commitment, people with disabilities were the only group that across the board, the government was hiring less than they were hiring in previous times," he said. "When we walked into office, that's the situation we faced."

Berry said he's now confident agencies will meet the President's goal.

"With a situation like that, it's sometimes hard to flip the needle," he said. "And the good news in the report is it shows that, in the past two years, the federal government has not only flipped the needle in the positive direction, it's moving forward at an amazing speed."

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