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Presentation at FAA National Conference on People with Targeted Disabilities May 21, 2008

Good morning. Thank you, Fanny[Rivera], for having me. Thanks also to Kimberly Castillo for all her efforts in putting this terrific event together. I want to congratulate the FAA for taking this dramatic and important step to improve its employment of people with disabilities. Having a national conference for people with targeted disabilities is a terrific way to convey to all FAA employees that hiring and advancing people with disabilities is a priority. Moreover, given that FAA is roughly 80% of the entire Department of Transportation, I’m especially looking forward to seeing DOT’s numbers improve when it comes to people with targeted disabilities.

I understand that the over-arching goals of this conference are to raise awareness of the need for DOT & FAA to recruit, hire, retain, develop, and advance individuals with targeted disabilities, and identify strategies to enhance employment opportunities for people with targeted disabilities at the FAA. Toward that end, I really just want to spend a few minutes sharing with you the national perspective of the EEOC when it comes to this issue.


We are living in an exciting time. As a nation, we have made tremendous strides in numerous areas. The most viable of presidential candidates include a woman and an African American. Our nation is finally paying serious attention to environmental issues, and none too soon, given those spring temps we had last week. I heard someone joke that it was so warm last Tuesday and Wednesday that Al gore got another Nobel Prize! J Unemployment is low and our nation’s citizens, on the whole, are more prosperous than ever before.

Employment Opportunities For People With Disabilities

From an employment perspective, however, there are still many challenges on the horizon. At the EEOC, as most of you know, our work is centered on enforcing civil rights in employment. Beyond basic enforcement, though, we also keep trend data on the US work force. This data helps us to take the pulse of the working world in our country.

Right now we are transitioning from the workforce and workplace of the 20 th century to the workforce of the 21 st century. The demographics of America's workforce are undergoing significant changes, and will continue to change over the next few years. The workforce today is ethnically more diverse – 21% of today’s employees are persons of color as compared to just 12% 30 years ago. As well, the proportion of men and women in the workforce is practically even. We are also seeing a great generational diversity in the work place. In some offices there are three, even four generations working side by side.

I mportantly, we know that job growth is outpacing population growth nationally. The baby boomer generation is beginning to retire. This has led some to predict a retirement tsunami for America, to include the federal government. That sounds pretty dramatic, but consider this: there are 78 million or so baby boomers who, having turned 60 last year, have already left or are about to leave the job market. By 2010 it is predicted that there will be a 10 million person shortfall in the traditional workforce. That means there will be approximately 168 million jobs here in the US, and only 158 million people available to fill them.

A 10 million person shortfall is pretty significant. It makes clear that employers must stay ahead of the curve and continually search for talented employees. Maintaining a skilled and competitive workforce is one of the most important challenges facing our country today. How will employers stay competitive? Meeting the challenge posed by a 10 million person shortfall requires employers to look for employment candidates in traditional and non-traditional venues. We need to be prepared to welcome all qualified candidates, including people with disabilities. Frankly, it would be foolish not to include people with disabilities. Consider this: It is estimated that roughly 54 million Americans have disabilities.

  • An estimated 30 million of that 54 million are of working-age, and about half of that 30 million is made up of individuals with severe disabilities. By severe, I mean disabilities like blindness or deafness . . . partial or complete paralysis . . . things like that.
  • Fifteen million working-age people with severe disabilities amounts to roughly 5% of our overall population. Given this, you’d expect to see PWSDs employed at about a 5% rate, right? Well, we’re not. Not even close.

That means there is a large labor pool out there that is not being tapped. The unemployment rate for individuals with severe disabilities is estimated to be anywhere from 40 - 70%. Frankly, it doesn’t matter whether it is 40% or 70% -- both numbers are absolutely ridiculous. Think about a 70% unemployment rate in comparison to the national unemployment rate of 5%. No other group is faced with such poor opportunity. And we should not be either. Considering the consistent need for available talent, I’m shocked that employers would continue to overlook this potential talent pool, but I know that they do.

We know, for instance, that in the federal government, PWSD are employed at slightly less than 1% – no where near the 5% we would expect! And in the private sector? We don’t know because statistics for PWSD employed in the private sector are not collected. No matter – even without statistics, I think we can safely say that the private sector is not doing much better than the public sector, given the astronomical unemployment rate for people with disabilities. This is something I want to see change.

Hiring And Working With People With Disabilities

Disability, like gender or ethnicity, is a characteristic that lends dimension to the human experience. Just as having a work force diverse in race, sex, religion, age, etc., enriches an organization, individuals with disabilities also add value to the work place mix. However, the jobs of today are still using a cookie cutter approach to recruitment and hiring. This inherently shuts out talented and qualified individuals with disabilities.

I want to share a couple of personal stories for you. In my young life I’ve had two very different careers. Before I was a lawyer, I was an engineer. I graduated from a Massachusetts Maritime Academy (MMA) with a degree in marine engineering. Unfortunately, I was in a car accident while I was still a student at MMA. My plans to work as an engineer in the Merchant Marine became impossible, as a ship’s engine room is about as inaccessible as it gets. Instead, I took a job as a Mechanical Engineer with the FDA. I spent several years working in the lab testing medical devices. I was then asked to accompany Investigators to inspect Medical Device manufacturers. This worked out so well the District Director asked me to consider becoming an engineer/investigator and spend all my time inspecting medical device manufacturers.

I did this as an individual with a disability. I went to medical device manufacturers unannounced and uninvited to conduct whatever inspection they were due to receive. And that was in the mid 1980s when access wasn’t as prevalent as it is today (and when I was in my teens).

We developed a system to determine which manufacturers were accessible. And if we were wrong and I encountered an inaccessible location, we dealt with it. Not once was I unable to do my job because I was in a wheelchair. And yes, there were plenty of people who thought I would be, but they were wrong. The only things that really stood in my way were the pre-conceived notions of others about my ability and my disability.

Same was true when I then decided to launch a legal career. I remember my experiences interviewing for positions and looking for my first post-law school job. It never occurred to me that anyone would question my ability to pursue a legal career or that I would have a hard time getting a job – until it came time to find a position. Like my fellow graduates, I attended a string of interviews prepared to respond to tough, challenging, and thought-provoking questions. I did not anticipate the one question I was asked at almost every interview: “How would you get a book off a shelf at the library?” It never occurred to any of my interviewers that, during three years of law school, I might have worked that problem out already.

The question highlights one of the biggest problems for people with severe disabilities in trying to find a job – interviewers cannot move past disability related limitations. Instead of thinking about whether I was qualified to do the job, my interviewers were more focused on how I would physically get a book off a shelf. We don’t think to ask an African-American how they might deal with working with all white colleagues, or asking a woman how she might deal working with only men… but employers don’t hesitate to think about similar questions when it comes to applicants with disabilities.

We’ve got to move past that type of thinking. If an applicant with a disability applies for a position with your organization, you should be inquiring about the knowledge and skills they could bring to the job. Period. Their disability IS NOT RELEVANT. Biases must be checked at the work place door.

Disability as an Element of Diversity

Obviously, the bottom line, and improvement to it, is what all businesses are striving for, whether you’re Kraft Foods, IBM, or the Transportation Research Board. In working toward this, I want to remind you that diversity is directly related to improvement of your bottom line. Any organizations -- including Federal agencies -- that want to be successful in today's world must recognize and use diversity to their advantage.

Diversity management programs should not stand alone. Instead, they must be recognized as a critical link in achieving the agency's specific mission or business needs, relative to employees, customers, suppliers, and other stakeholders. This is the business case for diversity.

The labor market has become increasingly competitive. For example, right now sixty percent of the government’s employees, including 90 percent of its 6,000 senior executives are eligible to retire over the next decade. Not all those eligible to retire will do so immediately, but the peak of retirements is expected to hit soon. The Federal Government must use every available source of candidates to ensure that each agency has the high-quality workforce that it needs to deliver its mission to the American public. Any agency that fails to take steps to recruit among the full spectrum of the labor market is missing a strategic opportunity. Managers need to take this challenge seriously.

Additionally, the changing demographics of America mean that the public served by the Federal Government is also changing. When agencies recruit and retain an inclusive workforce -- one that looks like the America it serves -- and when individual differences are respected, appreciated, and valued, diversity becomes an organizational strength that contributes to achieving results. Diversity offers a variety of views, approaches, and actions for an agency to use in strategic planning, problem solving, and decision making. It also enables an agency to better serve the taxpayer by reflecting the customers and communities it serves.

This conclusion has been supported by specific research showing that an effective diversity strategy has a positive effect on cost reduction, resource acquisition, creativity, problem solving, and organizational flexibility. Each of these actions has a direct impact on achieving the mission and business of the agency.

Now, I’ve known the value of diversity for years, and seen first hand the benefits reaped by having a diverse workforce. Nonetheless, I seem to be in the minority in my thinking. There are still those who hear the word diversity and believe it’s simply code for preferential treatment being afforded to minorities – Few would ever admit such a belief, of course, but I suspect that’s what underlies most opposition to the concept of diversity.

That’s not what diversity is about, and anyone with sense knows that. The ugly truth is that, at the heart of objections to diversity initiatives, there is an underlying belief that those all minorities are somehow inherently less qualified than everyone else. This bias affects Hispanic-Americans, African-Americans, Asian-Americans, immigrants, anyone who speaks with an accent, women and, notably, people with disabilities.

Disability is an element of diversity, but most of us don’t think about it that way. Equal opportunity extends to all people – as do the laws we enforce at the EEOC. We need to remind ourselves and challenge our ingrained biases: EEO is not just for women; harassment doesn’t just happen in blue collar jobs; … and diversity includes disability.

The bottom line is that employers simply have to change their thinking. Federal agencies, private industry…wherever! A lifetime ago being a “lady lawyer” was actually a distinction. In my lifetime I’d like to see the novelty of being severely disabled and having a job also disappear.

Just as employers take steps to ensure that other minority groups are represented in their ranks, through targeted recruitment, effort should and must be put into including people with disabilities. When you reach out to the Hispanic Engineers Association on a college campus, don’t forget to also reach out to the Association of Engineers with Disabilities. Or, at the very least, contact the Disability Student Services office on campus – every college has one.

Employers that overlook candidates with disabilities are missing out on a whole sector of the labor pool. I’m pleased to see that FAA is not one of those employers.

Does DOT and FAA have a ways to go – yes. But that’s why we’re here today. In FY 06, DOT ranked 12 th out of all 15 cabinet level agencies when it comes to the employment of people with targeted disabilities. That amounts to 285 people with targeted disabilities out of almost 54,000, or 0.53% of your total work force. This represents a decrease of 213 employees since FY 2002. For FAA specifically, there is a participation rate of only 0.43% -- or 193 people with targeted disabilities out of a total of 44,429 permanent employees as of the end of FY 2007. During FY 2007, there were a total of 2083 permanent employees hired at FAA, but out of those more than 2000 hires, managers only selected 5 persons with a severe disability. You can do better than that.

There are solutions to this problem. There are recruiting resources like WRP [link to] and EARN [link to], which you will hear about later this afternoon. There are hiring solutions like Schedule A, that you will also hear about later this morning. Further, there are accommodation solutions like DOD’s CAP [link to] program and JAN [link to] – the Job Accommodation Network. Both entities are here at the conference, so seek them out! Ultimately, no matter what issue you perceive as a problem, I promise you there is a solution – FIND IT.


In closing, I want to leave you with a couple of thoughts. I want each of you to consider the impact several exceptional people have had on our society and world. Julius Caesar. FDR. Attorney General Janet Reno. Former Senator Bob Dole. And the late Congresswoman Barbara Jordan. Their individual and collective impacts were tremendous! And they were each a person with a disability! How many of us knew that? History books do not focus on the disabilities of these individuals. Rather, the focus is on their talents and contributions. And this is where is belongs.

The same is true of companies and public agencies that reach out to people with disabilities. We must move past impairments and concentrate on individuals, and individual talents in the workplace. The ability to do this will impact your bottom line, as well as our nations.

The workplace is where we change perceptions. It’s where we all finally realize that we’re not that different after all. And embracing diversity in this broadest sense may just shield you from the business end of that tsunami I mentioned… Thank you.