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Presentation at
Job Accommodations Network (JAN) Conference
Aug 7, 2007

Good afternoon. Thank you, Anne, for your kind introduction. It is wonderful to be here with you all today. Given the vital and important work of JAN, I am always happy to support any your efforts.

I want to talk to you all today about the topic of employment for people with disabilities in the federal government. It’s an area that I’m very interested in and what I have spent a great deal of my time working on over the last year or so.

Let me first give you a bit of background. When I came to the EEOC in January of 2006, I came with this idea that, although the unemployment rate for people with disabilities is extremely high, I figured the federal government was probably doing an okay job in this area. Frankly, I assumed the federal government was likely the model employer when it came to the employment of people with severe disabilities. I soon learned that was not the case.

As with all new Commissioners, when I first came on board I went through a series of briefings with each EEOC office director. During the briefing from our director the Office of Federal Operations (OFO), I learned that not only was the federal government not a model employer for people with severe disabilities, but that the number of federal employees with severe disabilities has been steadily declining for more than a decade. In fact, right now people with severe disabilities make up less than 1% of the federal workforce.

It is because of this steady decline that the EEOC held a Commission meeting on the topic back in June of last year. Turns out I wasn't the only person interested in this topic. That Commission meeting was the largest one ever held at our headquarters facility in downtown DC. Almost 200 people filled our meeting room and over-flow rooms to hear panels of experts testify about the reasons behind this decline and what, possibly, can be done to turn things around. Since that day, my staff and I have been working to build upon what we started last June.

Shortly after the Commission meeting we launched an initiative out of my office called LEAD. LEAD stand for Leadership for the Employment of Americans with Disabilities.

This Initiative is aimed specifically at the increasing the population of people with severe disabilities in the federal government, and here’s why. While I am interested in getting private employers to pay attention to this issue, I feel strongly that the federal government, which is supposed to be the model employer, must step up and set a good example. Right now, our example is none too good.

Let me give you a few stats to illustrate this point. As I mentioned, the representation of people with severe disabilities right now is less than 1% of the total federal workforce. Out of 2.6 million people, that amounts to 24,442 individuals. And that rate has been going down every year for quite some time – we’re losing people at an alarming rate, in fact.

From FY 1997 to FY 2006, the total federal workforce increased by 135,732 employees, which represents an increase of 5.48%. During this same ten year period, the number of employees with targeted disabilities decreased from 28,671 to 24,442, which represents a decrease of -14.75%. In other words, over the last decade the government grew by 5½% overall, but we still lost almost 15% of all people with severe disabilities. This means we are losing ground every year!

If we look at just one year, we also see this problem. For example, despite having 1,503 new hires who are people with severe disabilities in FY05, 2,197 people with severe disabilities left the federal workforce in that same year!

What’s happened??? We saw a peak of participation in FY 1994 of 1.24%? Why have we strayed so far from that? What happened to the idea that the federal government was the model employer???

I used to work for the FDA way back in the ‘80s. When I initially interviewed for the position right out of college, I spoke with a friend who already worked there about finding out how my interview went and what my chances were for being hired. So she went to speak with the guy I interviewed with. She asked him, “So, are you going to hire my friend?” He told my friend, “I can’t not hire her! She’s a woman, a vet, and disabled. I have to hire her!” Now, while I know I was also the best qualified person for the job, I wonder to this day where that pressure he felt to hire me came from. And I ask again, what happened? I don’t think federal hiring officials feel that same pressure any longer. And they need to, if we’re going to get back to being a model employer.

The concept of the federal government as a model employer is not new. Theodore Roosevelt proclaimed, in his State of the Union address on December 3, 1907, that, “the National Government should be a model employer. It should demand the highest quality of service from each of its employees and it should care for all of them properly in return.”

As a model employer, federal agencies must set an example that all other employers, public and private, can look to as a positive example of how to recruit, hire, and retain a diverse workforce comprised of the best and the brightest workers this nation has to offer. This example should represent the best of human capital management and embody the concepts of fairness, inclusion and diversity.

Full inclusion in the federal government for Americans with severe disabilities makes sense for a number of reasons. Let me give you just a couple:

  1. First, the Federal Government is facing a retirement tsunami! The predictions are that 40% of the federal workforce will retire between 2006 and 2015. The Federal government must tap every resource to ensure that the government’s greatest asset – its employees – are top notch. That includes the untapped resource of people with severe disabilities. This is a perfect time to start planning outreach efforts that will result in the hiring of people with disabilities. It is also a good time to look around and ensure that people with severe disabilities are advancing into those senior level positions being vacated by retirees.
  2. Second, the unemployment rate for people with disabilities overall is estimated to be 70%. Compare this to the overall unemployment rate of less than 5% for the rest of working age Americans. Seventy percent! That means, more likely than not, that those people are living on benefits. You can’t make a living living on benefits. Moving more people with disabilities WHO WANT TO WORK off public assistance rolls and into the workforce impacts the bottom line for all Americans, if you think about it. It has a positive impact on the national pocket book, as well as their individual ones.

But it is more than the just the money for people with disabilities – having a job affects not just a person’s net worth but also their self worth. What we do for work and where we work is important to all of us. It is where we spend the most of our time and it becomes part of our identity.

I recently heard a woman with a disability at a conference talk about how important her job was to her. She said, “Working is important. I want to buy stuff like everyone else.” I thought that sums it up nicely.

It has been 34 years since President Nixon signed the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. This groundbreaking piece of legislation provided for the protection against disability related discrimination by any Federal agency, the United States Postal Service and the Postal Rate Commission for federal applicants and employees. It also called for federal agencies to develop, implement and maintain plans for the hiring and advancement of people with disabilities. That law has not gone away – it continues to be re-authorized and it continues to say that federal agencies have an affirmative duty to hire and promote employees with targeted disabilities. Seventeen years after the Rehab Act, the ADA extended those same protections beyond the federal govt to employees and applicants in the private sector.

The hopes and expectations held by advocates, legislators and most importantly, individuals with disabilities over the past 34 years included the hope that people with disabilities would experience great improvement in employment opportunities and full inclusion in the federal and private sectors. This dream has not been realized. To continue to simply hope for improvement after 33 years of none is just plan doesn’t make sense – HOPE IS NOT A PLAN.

We must come up with ways to get leadership focused on this issue – from the President to Secretaries and Directors of agencies – it is leadership that must champion this issue, convey that it is important to them and that measurable goals will be developed and implemented. As we all know, WHAT GETS MEASURED GETS DONE.

This is where I hope to change things. The over-arcing goal of the LEAD Initiative is to significantly increase the population of individuals with disabilities employed by the federal government, particularly those with the most severe of disabilities. We’ve taken steps we hope will result in this positive change – including:

  • Reaching out to CHCO Council (Chief Human Capital Officers);
  • Talking to audiences like you, far and wide, to get the word out about the problem and what we can do to address it; and
  • Educating folks about the Schedule A hiring authority. We held a seminar on the new Schedule A Hiring Authority at EEOC headquarters last September. We had 140 people in attendance for that one seminar! Our hope is that the attendees will take the info they learned at the seminar back to their agencies and use it to hire and advance people with severe disabilities!

In addition to educating hiring officials, I also think it is imperative to educate the disability community – our potential applicants – about how to apply for federal jobs. I am working with our partners at OPM (Office of Personnel Management), and other agencies to teach people with disabilities how to take advantage of the opportunities offered by special hiring authorities, internship programs, etc.

The EEOC is committed to reversing the declining trend. We are also committed to making the federal government the model employer Congress has mandated it to be. And we are committed to making this happen one agency at a time. We want and expect to see agencies start to hire and promote people with disabilities. We also want and expect to see a concerted effort by agencies to retain the disabled individuals already on board. As both OPM Director Springer and I have stated, all federal agencies should work to reach 2% by 2010. As this audience surely knows, 2010 represents the 20th Anniversary of the ADA. But don’t forget that it is also the 37th anniversary of the Rehab Act. Thirty-seven years is a lot of time. It’s now time for things to change.

As I continue forward with LEAD, I hope to rely more and more on you good folks. JAN is such a tremendous resource – one which I tell anyone who will listen about. So, I hope I’ve got you thinking about this issue, and I hope I can count on you now and in the future for your support of the LEAD effort.

Thank you again for having me. I appreciate being able to speak to this group and I look forward to meeting some of you before I head back. As time permits, I’d be happy to take questions. Thank you.