The U.S. Federal Work Force: Hiring People With Disabilities
A Review of Recruitment and Retention of the Disabled Worker in the Federal Government 1998 - 2001
By Yasmin A. Walters-Beckford
"Equal opportunity in employment for all people regardless of... disability should be the common goal across government." (People with Disabilities: Employment Guide, p. 4)
The federal government in 1998 established diversity hiring objectives to bring about greater inclusiveness in employment of disabled Americans, and the removal of existing barriers to their employment. Oversight responsibilities for meeting these goals were assigned to a consortium of eight federal organizations. They are (1) The Presidential Task Force on the Employment of Adults with Disabilities; (2) the U.S. Access Board; (3) the Department of Defense (Computer/Electronic Accommodations Program); (4) the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission; (5) the Department of Labor; (6) the Department of Veterans Affairs; (7) the Social Security Administration; and, (8) the U.S. Office of Personnel Management. These eight organizations are empowered to protect the rights of disabled individuals throughout the federal hiring process, and their mission and common ideologies unite them in meeting the overall vision for establishment of a federal government workforce that promotes diversity, and provides access to the work environment for all Americans.
There are 5 Executive Orders and 10 legislative actions supporting the federal government's policies on hiring and recruitment of the disabled. Each of them solidifies the deliberate actions undertaken by the legislative and executive branches of our government to substantially improve employment levels for individuals with disabilities within the federal sector. Four of the most significant and familiar legislative actions are highlighted below:
(People With Disabilities: Employment Guide, pp.4-7).
Section 501 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, as amended (29 U.S.C. Section 791), provides legal remedy for victims who believe they have been discriminated against in the Federal hiring process based on an individual's disability. Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, as amended (29 U.S.C. Section 794d establishes guidelines for providing equal access (via electronic and technological means to all Americans and removal of transportation and other barriers).
The Vietnam Era Veterans' Readjustment Assistance Act of 1974, as amended (38 U.S.C. 4212) Veterans' Readjustment Appointment provides for non-competitive appointment and advancement for qualified post-Vietnam era Veterans who self-declare, during the hiring process.
The Civil Service Reform Act of 1978 requires fair and equitable treatment of all in the hiring process, regardless of political, religious, racial, gender, or other distinctions, including disability.
The Americans with Disability Act of 1990 (Pub. L. 101-336) (ADA), as amended, as these titles appear in volume 42 of the United States Code, beginning at section 12101) established a clear mandate for the nation to eliminate discrimination against disabled Americans and expressly forbids discriminatory acts wherever found, in every aspect of American life - in commerce, trade, employment, housing, and all forms of public transportation and accommodations, etc.
The goal of the Task Force was to develop an aggressive policy for substantially improving hire rates of the disabled, to levels more closely reflecting the levels of general hiring among the adult U.S. population. Other Executive Orders and legislative amendments sought to expand the goals of diversified hiring in the Federal workplace by (1) addressing various obstacles to fulfillment of the program's hiring goals; (2) providing for access and reasonable accommodation; and, (3) protecting the rights of those disabled workers hired into the federal workplace. (People With Disabilities: Employment Guide, p. 7).
Reducing Barriers To Employment Of Disabled Workers
Under the current Americans with Disability Act ("ADA") legislation, a disabled person is defined as someone who has a physical or mental impairment which prevents them from performing without assistance, major life activities, including care taking functions such as bathing, clothing, or other manual tasks. (People With Disabilities: Employment Guide, p. 11)
Among recent legislation, perhaps the most influential are those amendments which address the removal of barriers and hurdles to the disabled employee, and establish standards on provision of equal access -- commonly known as the "reasonable accommodation" clauses -- in the federal hiring process. The term "reasonable accommodation" means that the federal manager can and should attempt to make available to the disabled employee, reasonable workplace accommodations that enable the individual to perform their job functions, provided the efforts made, do not cause the agency undue hardship. An undue hardship is defined as an action requiring significant difficulty or expense when considered in light of factors such as the agency's size, financial resources, and the nature and structure of the operation. (People with Disabilities: Employment Guide p. 18). A qualified disabled worker is able to meet job requirements through educational background and employment experience or skills, and is able to perform essential job tasks, especially if reasonable accommodations are provided. (People With Disabilities: Employment Guide, p. 11).
Certification of disability is established when the job seeker provides to the employing federal agency, a certificate issued by the State Vocational Rehabilitation Agency (SVRA). If the job seeker is a Veteran, the certification is supplied by the Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment Service (VRES) of the Department of Veterans Affairs. The certification process is guaranteed by law to be kept confidential, and the information supplied in the counselor's certification assessment cannot be maintained in the employee's official personnel folder, but must be filed separately to further ensure confidential treatment. (People With Disabilities: Employment Guide, p. 14). After the applicant is selected for hire, the counselor at SVRA or the VRES can assess which tasks require accommodation, and make a determination on the applicant's capacity to perform them, based on a review of the job task list provided by the hiring agency. The counselor prepares written recommendations to the employer on any required accommodations the candidate would need to perform the defined tasks. In 1998, Congress amended the Rehabilitation Act (Section 508) to require Federal agencies to make their electronic and information technology accessible to people with disabilities. Section 508 was enacted to eliminate barriers in information technology, to make available new opportunities for people with disabilities, and to encourage development of [assistive] technologies that will help achieve these goals. Section 508 also added the language requiring all agencies to prepare biannual reports on evaluation of the agency's compliance, and submit them to the Office of the U.S. Attorney General. (People With Disabilities: Employment Guide, p. 5).
The Department of Labor's Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP) provides national leadership to increase employment opportunities for adults and youth with disabilities, while striving to eliminate barriers to employment. (People With Disabilities: Employment Guide, p. 9). ODEP's Job Accommodation Network (JAN) web site contains some of the most comprehensive information available on cost of resources; nature of accommodations; limitations of disabled people; and, other extremely valuable problem solving tools, and planning material for employers and employees. The site address is http://www.jan.wvu.edu/links/.
Once hired, other options and flexibilities can be made available to an employee who makes a written or verbal request for such help. The employer may provide access to technologies, reconfigure workspace, offer telework (employee works at home via agency supplied and supported computer and other technological equipment). The disabled employee and the manager should work together to determine needs and identify solutions to improve the work life, and reduce the difficulties, which may restrict performance of assigned job duties.
Resources To The Federal Manager
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) manages the complaint process as part of its stated mission to protect and uphold laws that address all types of employment discrimination and, specifically under ADA Title I, employment discrimination against the disabled worker. The Justice Department prosecutes those cases where violations of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, prohibiting discrimination in employment (including employment discrimination against the disabled) are established. (DOL Disability Resources: Laws).
Federal recruitment officers, managers, and supervisors are charged with the responsibility of creating a more diverse workplace: removing barriers and promoting the disabled. Their efforts in this regard also require them to provide career development opportunities; reasonable accommodations; and, to comply with the goals identified under the various federal legislation. (People With Disabilities: Employment Guide, p. 9).
The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) website supplies a comprehensive depository of guidance and other resources to meet compliance criteria. OPM's site is resource-rich, providing an impressive array of information for each of the three primary (stakeholder segment) audiences: the HR professional, the employee manager, and the employee/potential applicant. The site also features guides for senior managers planning an agency's hiring and recruiting strategy, and includes on-line resources and publications that touch on nearly every aspect of recruitment and job seeking. OPM's site offers program guidance -- defining the roles of supervisors and managers; supporting them in their roles; and even establishing some protocols, such as sensitivity training in the form of dos and don'ts, for interviewers and interviewees alike. The web address for the site is http://www.opm.gov/disability/.
The federal manager has access also to other direct planning and implementation assistance resources including, the "Workforce Recruitment Program for College Students with Disabilities" (WRP). WRP provides a source of candidates for Federal employment, and is jointly managed by the Department of Labor's Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP) and the Department of Defense. Additionally, ODEP also sponsors the "Employer Assistance Referral Network" (EARN), which supplies links for employers seeking to hire qualified people who happen to be disabled. The "Ticket to Work" program, (managed by the Social Security Administration), provides vocational rehabilitation, employment and other support services to Social Security and Supplemental Security Income beneficiaries with disabilities.
The Rehabilitation Services Administration (RSA), falls under the umbrella of the U.S. Department of Education. RSA provides funding to: (1) the "Projects with Industry" (PWI) program; (2) the "Centers for Independent Living" (CIL) program; and, (3) the Migrant Seasonal Farm Workers (MSFW) program. These last three programs, (PWI, CIL and MSFW), extend help to, and can identify employment opportunities for their clients, many of whom have profound disabilities, but who may not have been in contact with other State Vocational Rehabilitation Services or programs.
Considerable information to the public and others, is also available at the White House sponsored Disability Information site. Here, visitors are linked to numerous Federal and local programming for disabled Americans, their families, caregivers, employers, and community partners at every level of service. The web address is (http://www.DisabilityInfo.gov/)
Agency Model Plan
There are several federal agencies, which have well managed plans for hiring of disabled employees; among them are the Department of Labor, the Department of Education, and the Social Security Administration. The key components of a well-developed plan (as identified by OPM) are that the agency's program set goals and clearly define objectives, to recruit and hire disabled workers, and also establish full integration of the disabled worker into the workplace. Federal managers are expected to achieve diversity by incorporating into their agency's hiring plans, opportunities that ensure the advancement and development of all employees along their career paths. In at least one federal agency, it has become part of the Performance Appraisal Process to identify and reward managers who implement agency strategies aimed at creating a more diverse workforce, including hiring employees with disabilities.
An agency's model plan should provide for collaboration with sources of disabled workers, including colleges and universities, local vocational, rehabilitative and other community-based entities, and also the various Veterans assistance agencies. The agency plan should make available its recruiting resources, including vacancy announcements and other employment related information, in a variety of formats such as Braille, computer disk, auditory, and other technologically enhanced media. A model agency plan actively encourages managers to enlarge the pool of disabled workers, and will make use of opportunities to employ disabled worker-trainees in entry-level positions. A model agency promotes the use of special appointing authorities, which provide accommodation resources of nearly every kind, these include: hiring readers, interpreters, personal assistants, and establishment of training programs, (particularly for disabled Veterans).
Perhaps the most important factor in creating a successful program and a model agency plan, is to ensure that issues of biased attitudes and stereotypes are adequately addressed. The model agency plan uses a variety of learning and adaptation programs that assist and train its managers and supervisors on the recruitment, retention, and promotion of disabled employees.
The Social Security Administration (SSA) has demonstrated superior programming characteristics, earning itself a place on OPM's "Tracking Results" web page (highlighting best practices). While other agencies struggle to formulate a plan for hiring disabled employees, SSA's program exemplifies success because its monitoring, tracking, and reporting systems are internalized as part of standard operations procedures of the organization. The success of the SSA is, in part, due to the level of support and endorsement its programs receive from senior level management (across the nation), on hiring of underrepresented populations, including the disabled. (OPM website: Disability Tracking).
Disabled Hiring In The Federal Workforce - 1998-2001
For the period 1998 to 2001, data on the Federal workforce show that representation of the disabled has changed very little. The data on employment of disabled workers in the Executive Branch for the entire 11-year reporting period, 1990-2001, tell an even more interesting story. It appears that in the wake of the 1998 initiatives, the workforce representation of disabled workers lost ground. When the data for years 1992-1996 are compared with the subsequently reported data for 1998-2001, it appears that employment levels actually fell. The discouraging news is that between 1998-2001 (the three year period after the implementation of the 1998 hiring objectives), representation of the targeted group of severely disabled workers -- those for whom it was expected that reasonable accommodation policies would create increased employment opportunities -- remain virtually unchanged. (Federal Factbook 2002, p. 42).
Notably, the data representing the hiring of disabled Veterans are only slightly less disheartening, with a nearly imperceptible increase between 1998 and 2000. With regard to hiring of disabled Veterans in the Executive Branch, the greatest number of these hirees is concentrated in the defense agencies. (Federal Fact Book, 2002, p. 45). Veterans represent 25.8% of the Executive Branch Departments, (or 442,156 out of 1,764,083). Veterans make up 17.7% of all Executive Branch disabled employees and account for 7.4% of those considered severely disabled (more than 30% impairment). (Factbook 2002, pp. 32- 35).
Conclusions and Recommendations
In the language of Executive Order 13078, government's goal in 1998 was to establish itself as the "model employer of the disabled." (People with Disabilities: Employment Guide, p. 7). Disabled workers are dedicated, hardworking performers and, especially among those highly skilled employees, provide added value-to the workforce. More than 30 years of research (Zivolivh & Millard, 1990) has demonstrated that disabled workers add value to the employment landscape. Therefore, it is difficult to comprehend why, despite the wonderful array of resources, the Federal government has yet to meet its objectives in hiring more disabled Americans.
The government has missed the mark established in its 1998 objectives. Simply by comparing the data from 1998-2001 with data reported in the years 1992-1996 -- the years just prior to issuance of the 1998 Executive Order establishing the Task Force -- it is clear that an overall loss was incurred in the representation of disabled employees in the Federal workplace. The federal manager has at his or her disposal a multitude of tools to achieve the hiring goals set in 1998 -- vocational rehabilitation; procurement initiatives of items manufactured by the disabled; planning resources etc., -- but employment levels of disabled workers in the federal government have shown little improvement. Implementation of reasonable accommodation strategies, and in particular, training programs for the severely disabled and Veterans, should have had a positive impact on the number of severely disabled hired in the workforce, yet virtually no measurable change has occurred.
It is unlikely that budget considerations for the provision of workplace accommodations significantly restricted agency hiring officials from increasing the levels of disabled hirees, since statistics indicate that 80% of the Job Accommodation Network (JAN) recommendations cost less than $500. (ODEP-JAN: Accommodation Facts). As early as 1993, studies showed that cost of workplace accommodations are relatively inexpensive, with (1) 50% of workplace modifications costing under $50; (2) 20% of modifications to workplace range between $51 and $500; (3) while still only about 17% cost the employer between $501 and $1000. Furthermore, only a modest 13% cost in excess of $1000. (Jones, 1993). Examples of simple, low cost workplace solutions include:
(ODEP-JAN: Accommodation Facts).
"An administrative assistant with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) has difficulty with using the phone, typing, computer input, completing forms and reports, and doing some filing. A cordless headset for the telephone is purchased, arm rest extensions from the edge of the desk are installed to reduce strain on wrists and arms, and a new effortless lock and handle are installed on the restroom door. COST: $450.
A receptionist who is blind works at a law firm. She cannot see the lights on the phone console which indicate which telephone lines are ringing, on hold, or in use by staff. The employer purchases a light-probe, a penlike product which detects a lighted button. COST: $45.
A computer service technician with cerebral palsy loses function of the lower extremities. The job related problems include bending, stooping, balancing, and getting underneath the mainframe equipment to perform needed repairs. An automotive repair creeper is purchased and modified with back support to enable the employee to slide easily under the mainframes. COST: $30."
While surveys on job performance and reliability of the disabled worker indicate that on average, disabled workers have better attendance ratings than non-disabled workers, and are also more productive than their non-disabled counterparts, (Lester & Caudill, 1987), overwhelmingly, the research indicates that the disabled (as are other minority populations) are less frequently hired, and more frequently fired than workers without disabilities. Safety issues surrounding hiring of the disabled have also been evaluated, and as reported in the 1990 Dupont study, safety records for disabled workers were equal or better than those of their non-disabled co-workers. (Zivolivh & Millard, 1990). This evaluation of safety concerns related to disabled workers was reconfirmed in a 1993 research study conducted on ADA employment provisions; researchers learned that 93% of employers surveyed in Oklahoma reported that their mentally challenged workers did not create an increased safety risk in the workplace. (Blanck, P.D., 1993).
It is, however, more likely that the key to the unimproved hiring levels of disabled workers in the federal government lies in the attitudes of the managers responsible for creating employment and career development opportunities. Systemic barriers are significantly more difficult to overcome than are physical barriers, especially given the research studies and other experiential evidence. (DOL Disability Resources: Attitudinal barriers).
Programs and initiatives by themselves do not change attitudes. In order to achieve goals set for creating a more diverse government workforce, hiring officials must display greater receptiveness, and eliminate the damaging stereotypes that exist about the capabilities of the disabled worker. The persistence of these myths endanger the programs designed to increase employment levels for disabled workers; removal of these institutional barriers will require even greater persistence in order to have an impact on the federal government's hiring levels of disabled workers.
The federal government is, however, to be commended on the wealth and availability of innovative recruitment resources it provides to its managers, supervisors and hiring officials -- but more needs to be done. Implementation of a government-wide policy requiring Performance Appraisal Assessments for managers and supervisors, based on their attainment of diversity hiring objectives, may provide the impetus needed to achieve goals outlined in 1998 by the Presidential Task Force on the Employment of Adults with Disabilities. Those who have responsibility for hiring and creating employment opportunities do not identify with the disabled applicant, or view (underrepresented populations, such as) the disabled labor pool as a significant resource. Changing the attitudes of federal managers is perhaps the greatest challenge facing efforts to promote diversity in hiring in the federal workplace - especially with regard to the hiring and promotion of disabled Americans.
Blanck, P.D. (1993). The Americans with Disabilities Act: Putting the employment provisions to work, The Annenberg Washington Program, White Paper, Washington, D.C.
Jones, T.L. (1993). The Americans with Disabilities Act: A review of best practices. New York: AMA Membership Publications Division.
Lester, R.A., & Caudill, D.W. (1987). The handicapped worker: Seven myths. Training and Development Journal, 41(8), 50-51.
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Office of Personnel Management, (2000). Federal Employment Statistics: Demographic Profile of the Federal Workforce. Retrieved June 2003, from http://opm.gov/feddata/demograp/00demogr.pdf
Office of Personnel Management, (July 1998). People with Disabilities in the Federal Government - A Statistical Profile, (OPM Publication No. ES/DO-2). Retrieved June 2003, from www.opm.gov/employ/diversity/stats/disabilities.pdf
Zivolivh and Millard, Du Pont (1990) Equal to the Task, Journal of Staffing and Recruitment, Spring.