FEATURE: U.S. gov't pushes to be model employer of people with disabilities

Japan Economic Newswire |

NASA project manager Denna Lambert is one of thousands of U.S. government employees taken on through the Schedule A Hiring Authority, a program that contributed to federal agencies adding more than 100,000 workers with disabilities over a five-year period.

Lambert, 37, who is legally blind due to congenital cataracts, credits the program for helping to alleviate the uncertainty often felt around hiring someone with a disability, a factor that can make the job search frustrating despite long-standing antidiscrimination laws.

"When it comes down to actually hiring, managers (may) have a fear or misunderstanding about what a disability is and what it looks like in the workplace...probably because they have never met someone who was blind or has a disability that works in a competitive environment," she said.

With Schedule A, the government can directly hire any qualified applicant who is proven to meet certain disability criteria, with the new employee given an extended probationary period of two years rather than one as is typical in government service.

"The advantage is you can hire someone directly without competition, without having to review hundreds of resumes, but you also can have more time to decide if it's going to work out or not," Lambert said.

She joined the U.S. agency at its Goddard Space Flight Center in eastern Maryland in 2004, starting as a contract specialist and later serving as its disability program manager, in charge of recruiting new hires and working with managers to increase diversity. Currently she manages various projects including renovation of the facility's library.

Although Schedule A has been in use for decades, the U.S. government's proportion of workers with disabilities had stagnated at roughly 8 percent through the 1990s and early 2000s, around the time when Lambert was graduating from the University of Arkansas with a business degree and math minor.

A later push by the Obama administration, including a 2010 executive order setting the ambitious goal to hire 100,000 people with disabilities, boosted the proportion of such employees to 14.41 percent of the full-time federal workforce by 2015.

The figure, which includes veterans who satisfy at least 30 percent of the disability criteria, stood at 16.65 percent as of last May, according to the Office of Personnel and Management.

Maria Town, the director of the Mayor's Office for People with Disabilities in Houston, Texas, also secured her first government job through the Schedule A process.

After finishing her anthropology degree in 2009 at Atlanta's Emory University, Town, who has cerebral palsy, was hired through the program as a policy adviser at the U.S. Department of Labor's Office of Disability Employment Policy and later became a senior associate director in the Obama White House Office.

"My disability, when you see me walk, it's very visible and I know that for a lot of people it makes them uncomfortable," she said. "What I have to do is control my own narrative."

Town stressed the importance of having attended mainstream schools during her childhood in Louisiana, saying the academic and social experience helped her to excel and created a solid foundation for her career.

While at Labor, she coordinated policies with the Department of Education to combat a trend of students with disabilities being misunderstood, punished disproportionately and funneled into prison or isolation rather than becoming active community members and viable job candidates.

"Children with disabilities need to learn from a very early age that they have access to the same opportunities as everyone else, and that happens with integrated education," Town said.

She also bolstered the ambitions of Obama's executive order, which sought to make the federal government a model for the employment of people with disabilities, through agency regulations that would remain in force longer than the order itself.

As one of a variety of flexible hiring authorities, Schedule A incentivizes the hiring of people with disabilities but does not create new jobs or guarantee work for eligible job-seekers. The program is not used by all federal agencies, though similar tools or a combination of policies are often implemented for the same purpose.

U.S. federal efforts have set an example for state and local governments as well as the private sector, and may also be relevant to Japan's push to hire more government workers with disabilities in the wake of a data-padding scandal.

As of last June, Japan employed people with disabilities as a mere 1.22 percent of its overall federal workforce, despite Japanese law establishing a 2.5 percent quota for public institutions. An investigation found that 27 national administrative entities had manipulated data to appear to meet the quota.

The government has since vowed to hire around 4,000 individuals with disabilities by the end of the year. It will conduct a large-scale exam to help place candidates in various federal bodies, increase regulation of disability status and explore telecommuting options.

For workers like Lambert, flexibility in work hours can be important for managing medical appointments, and working from home increases safety on days when icy conditions or other bad weather would affect her commute by public bus.

U.S. employers, including the government, are required by the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 to provide reasonable accommodations to workers with disabilities, though onboarding costs can become a barrier to employment.

Initiatives like the Computer / Electronics Accommodation Program, funded by the Department of Defense, help to fill the gap. The program paid for the assistive technology Lambert uses on the job, an expense of roughly $2,000.

For Town, whose disability makes it difficult to walk or stand for extended periods as is sometimes necessary during events, staffers are available to provide assistance, while funding to commute by rideshare services was negotiated as part of her salary.

The Texas official lauded efforts to hire and work with people who have disabilities, explaining that to do otherwise is to miss out on a huge amount of available talent.

"That is not sustainable...(for) nations that don't actively encourage people with disabilities to work," she said. "So much innovation has come out of the disability experience."


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