Senator urges agencies, Congress to hire more disabled employees

The federal government must hire more people with disabilities to meet its obligation as a model employer, said Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., in a Monday lecture at New York Law School.

"We should show employers by example why it makes good sense to hire and promote people with disabilities," he told students and professors during the fourth annual Tony Coelho Lecture in Disability Employment Law and Policy in New York.

Durbin cited a January 2008 report from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on the federal employment of people with disabilities. That report found that there were only 90 people with targeted disabilities, which include blindness, deafness and mobility loss, in senior pay grades in the federal government. Overall, EEOC concluded, the federal government employs fewer people with disabilities now than it has at any point during the last 20 years.

The Illinois Democrat also noted that Congress was equally far behind in its efforts to hire people with disabilities.

"Congress, we should look at ourselves," he said. "We honestly don't know how many people with disabilities work in Congress. In the Senate, each office is its own little kingdom. There is no central effort to engage more people with disabilities."

Durbin has two disabled staffers in his office, and Coelho, who authored the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act when he served in the House, said Durbin has vowed to push his colleagues to commit to adding 10 people with disabilities to the Senate's administrative staff each year. The House already has a similar commitment in place.

Hiring more people with disabilities is important, Durbin said, because it allows companies and the government to tap a largely ignored talent pool of motivated, efficient workers at relatively low cost.

Another recent study found that disabled workers consistently scored as well or slightly better on performance reviews than their able-bodied counterparts. They also took fewer scheduled and unscheduled days of leave. The average cost of accommodating a disabled worker was $313, and the most commonly requested accommodation was a flexible schedule, according to the report, prepared by DePaul University researchers, the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity, and the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce.

"When millions of Americans with talents and skills [that] our nation desperately needs are shut out of the workforce, you don't need a Ph.D. in economics to tell that's bad for the economy," Durbin said.

The best way to improve the federal government's hiring practices is not through legislation, he said, but via a change in culture and through presidential initiative, such as the one President Bill Clinton announced in 2000 to hire an additional 100,000 federal employees with disabilities.

"I'm talking about a president with the principles and the standards to inspire that," Durbin said, before suggesting that Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., whom he has endorsed, would be that kind of president. "I don't want to promise that he would sign any [executive order to replicate Clinton's initiative]; that's beyond me," Durbin said. "Knowing him, though, I bet if I talked to him, he would do it.

Durbin acknowledged that it would take time for the federal government to change attitudes about disabled employees, but said outstanding examples already exist.

"Who would believe that a few months after being shot down and losing her legs that [Tammy Duckworth] could run for Congress and run the [Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs]?" Durbin asked. "Her husband is deployed. She is living by herself as a double amputee. As she does that, she dispels the myth that being a double amputee means that it's over."

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