Hidden Talent

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Removing obstacles for workers with disabilities is about more than ramps and readers-it's about tapping the skills agencies need.

The National Security Agency headquarters in Fort Meade, Md., is one of the most buttoned-down facilities in the nation. When I arrived at the first checkpoint one morning in late July to conduct interviews, the guards summoned a Hummer in case I tried to make a run for it while they searched for my name on a clearance checklist. But for people with disabilities seeking jobs, the complex might be one of the most accessible places in government.

NSA is working to reverse a troubling trend in federal hiring. Despite agencies' access to hiring authorities and funding for computer accommodations to bring employees with disabilities on board, their numbers have declined steadily for more than a decade. Advocates in government say those statistics are an embarrassment and a major barrier to breaking down societal stereotypes about people with disabilities. They say agencies should increase the disabled proportion of workforce to 2 percent by 2010.

'A Terrible Job'

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's latest workforce numbers suggest that even a seemingly modest goal could be a significant challenge. Christine Griffin, an EEOC commissioner who has played a leading role in putting disability employment on the front burner, doesn't hold back on the subject. "We actually have laws and regulations that say to the federal government, 'You need to do a good job in this area.' And frankly, despite those laws, we're doing a terrible job," she told an audience of disability and diversity managers and human resources officers at a July symposium called Two Percent by 2010 in Washington.

Griffin presented some startling figures. In fiscal 2007, the ranks of disabled employees shrank to 0.9 percent of the workforce, down from 1.2 percent in fiscal 1996. Between 1997 and 2006, the workforce increased by 135,732 people. Yet the number of employees with disabilities fell from 28,671 to 24,442. The Cabinet-level departments with the most disabled employees in 2007 were Treasury, with 1.7 percent; Veterans Affairs, with 1.5 percent; and Education, with 1.4 percent. Those with the fewest were Homeland Security, with 0.4 percent; Justice, with 0.4 percent; and State, with 0.3 percent. Except for Justice and Education, where percentages stayed the same, the numbers in all other departments declined between 2006 and 2007.

It's not only that few people with disabilities are getting in the door at federal agencies, they also are not rising through the ranks, Griffin said. There are 7,806 members of the Senior Executive Service, but only 93 are disabled. The average grade for General Schedule employees is 10; disabled employees lag with an average grade of 8.5. Those numbers are especially disturbing, she says, because the office is the key place to dismantle stereotypes about who disabled people are and what they can do.

"You can't have anything that the rest of America has unless you have a job and you have money," said Griffin, who uses a wheelchair. "They look at us and say, 'Isn't it great they get to go to a restaurant?' But it hasn't changed their views of what I'm capable of doing. . . . I see employment for people with disabilities as critical to changing society's view of us as people, as human beings. . . . That's where this revolution is going to take place."

Waiting to be Hired

The lack of progress is particularly discouraging, advocates say, because agencies have many tools to hire people with disabilities and give them the resources they need to do their jobs.

Managers can hire candidates with severe disabilities noncompetitively through Schedule A authority. Schedule A employees remain on probation for two years instead of one. Stephen M. King, disability program manager for the Census Bureau, told participants at the July conference that the authority was written broadly, so agencies can use Schedule A to hire candidates with targeted disabilities-which include deafness, blindness, paralysis, amputation, mental illness, retardation, convulsive disorders, and spine or limb distortion-or disabling medical conditions.

Agencies looking to recruit disabled candidates can turn to the Workforce Recruitment Program-a project of the Labor and Defense departments and Labor's Office of Disability Employment Policy. The program annually prescreens and interviews 1,700 college students with disabilities, who are available to intern in mission-critical fields, and gives managers access to candidates' profiles.

"It's just a big, swimming mass of students waiting to be hired," says Betsy Kravitz, national manager for the recruitment program. "You have direct access. You don't have to go through some conduit in your agency. . . . You bring them in as a summer hire or a temp, but the manager gets used to them, the workforce gets used to them, and they break down barriers, and you've been working with them for two years, so hire them."

Once agencies make offers, they can get the adaptive technologies employees need through the Computer/Electronic Accommodations Program (CAP). Founded in 1990 as part of the Defense Department's TRICARE program, which provides health benefits to military members and their families, CAP became the central provider for federal accommodations in 2001. The program, still part of TRICARE, has provided agencies governmentwide with teletypewriters, captioning tools, equipment to enlarge print, alternative keyboards, screen readers and speech recognition software, among other technologies. And when disabled employees have to attend technology training sessions, CAP can hire sign language interpreters, readers and personal assistants.

Even as the number of disabled federal employees has decreased, CAP's reach has expanded. In 1990, the program provided about 1,000 accommodations for employees with hearing loss. This fiscal year, it is on pace to provide more than 10,000 accommodations to meet cognitive, dexterity, vision and hearing needs. King said with CAP, Schedule A and the Workforce Recruitment Program, disability coordinators shouldn't be afraid to be aggressive advocates for hiring disabled employees. Those programs make the process of finding qualified candidates, bringing them on board and getting them to work faster than going through the standard competitive hiring process.

"All these programs are free, and they make you look really good as a disability coordinator," King said. "Managers are like 'Ooh, you're going to get that?'. . . The hiring process can easily be cut down from two to six months to less than one month."

Getting agencies used to these programs and authorities is particularly important, CAP Director Dinah Cohen told conference participants, because of renewed interest in hiring disabled veterans at many agencies.

"If you haven't had a good disabilities program, and your boss says, 'let's bring back disabled veterans,' and you don't know how to start with accommodations, you ain't gonna do it," she said. "You need to start with the basics."

High Standards

In 1992, NSA's director made a commitment to turn the agency into a model employer of workers with disabilities. But simply making use of existing resources isn't enough to get managers excited about the goal, says Pattie Dahlen, NSA's disability program manager.

"One of the things we did when we heard 'be a model employer' was to look at it as meaning 'go above and beyond,' " she says, adding that it's hard to exaggerate the extent to which NSA has done precisely that.

The commitment starts at the top. All NSA leaders, including mid-level managers, are required to attend training on the legal and cultural issues surrounding disability. The agency also offers voluntary disability awareness training to the entire workforce.

NSA takes suggestions from employees with special needs about what technology to buy and what adaptations to make. Dahlen's office regularly talks to employees about the latest technologies. An NSA facilities engineer reviews not only construction plans but all buildings to make sure they are compliant with the 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act, even though the accessibility requirements do not apply to existing buildings unless they undergo major renovations.

Some of those learning experiences have been humbling, says Donald A. Weber, deputy chief of NSA's Office of Recruitment.

"You think you're being all that and a bag of chips, and all of a sudden you discover the most obvious thing that you're not doing," he says. "We had a candidate with a disability . . . and he had no way to get to lunch. Our café was across the parking lot in the next building, and we soon discovered we weren't very inclusive. We didn't have a way for someone not to feel extremely different."

NSA now has a café in its main building. And Weber is working to make sure more prospective employees with disabilities, and their assistants, make it through NSA's perimeter. Representatives from his office will go to as many as 30 career fairs aimed at disabled candidates this year, and in some cases will bring along NSA employees who can share their experiences. The agency has a contract with a recruiting firm, Bender Consulting of Pittsburgh, which looks for and prescreens disabled job-seekers.

When a candidate is hired, the agency gets ready. Disability Affairs will send a staffer to the hiring office to answer questions about relating to and helping the new employee. If he or she has hearing loss, for example, the office will offer a sign language class and a course on deaf culture to co-workers. In some cases, an interpreter will accompany an employee to an off-site location. NSA provides security badges to aides who help disabled employees throughout the day.

Sometimes that's what it takes to attract talent, Dahlen says, noting a highly respected programmer. "He's fascinating, he's invaluable," she says. "He was a 4.0-plus student in college, he's a [computer] programmer and a quadriplegic. He uses dictation to program. We have to do what we have to do to be able to keep him, so if that entails bringing someone in to take care of him during the day, that's what we've sponsored [a badge] to do."

Their efforts are paying off. NSA has helped other intelligence agencies make a business case for expanding their disability efforts. Bender Consulting has a 90 percent success rate with the employees it places with agencies and businesses, says company president Joyce Bender, who was inspired to become a disability employment advocate when she was diagnosed with epilepsy.

Bender's work with NSA has won attention outside the intelligence community from people like former U.S. Attorney General Richard Thornburgh. "He said . . . 'If the NSA can work with Bender [Consulting], what's your excuse?' " she says. "If the NSA can hire people with disabilities-they have very high standards, they have all these security procedures-so can anyone else."

"The problem is finding someone who will open the door," Bender says.

Griffin says she thinks managers sometimes equate physical difficulties with developmental ones, and assume disabled people won't be able to do a job, or don't have the skills to advance to management. She said at the July conference that she is at a loss to explain the situation in the federal government.

"I sometimes feel like I should just stop talking about it. . . . I can't figure out the reason," she said. "Why is this not a good place to work?"

Getting the Job Done

That's the message the Federal Disability Workforce Consortium wants to get across in October during National Disability Employment Awareness Month. The organization, which aims to improve federal recruiting of people with disabilities, is led by a steering committee of five volunteers from the Labor, Commerce and Education departments, the Government Printing Office, and CAP. The group holds and co-sponsors seminars, provides educational resources, and helps design messaging and strategy for disability coordinators trying to convince senior leaders to make changes in agency policies and approaches.

At the group's July planning meeting, Jennifer Croft, one of the steering committee members, said disability advocates need to do more to make the case that hiring disabled employees isn't simply about social justice. It makes sense for agencies to look to the underemployed community of disabled employees to fill a rapidly growing pool of open positions, she said.

"We don't think from the shoes of the hiring manager and the other people who are making decisions. We are not thinking the way they think," Croft said. "What is the price, or the perceived price, they're going to pay if they hire someone with a disability? [What are] other ways we can bring that perceived price down in our managers' eyes? Don't preach to the choir. We have done that over and over and over again, and we have burnt that out."

They might find an especially receptive audience among younger federal employees. In December 2007, four members of the Presidential Management Fellows Program formed the Interagency Action Learning Team on Disability Policy. The team-Somer Bessire-Briers at the State Department, Virginia Hill at the National Institutes of Health, Claire Trivedi at the Housing and Urban Development Department, and Tracy Wilkinson at the Education Department-wanted to unify the conversation around what they saw as an unfocused and disorganized federal approach to disability. They hope to host educational events for fellows to help guide the next generation of government leaders.

In June, the group held its first forum on federal employment of people with disabilities, attended by 90 Presidential Management Fellows from 20 agencies. A follow-up survey showed that 73 percent of attendees shared information they'd learned with their colleagues, 26.3 percent were incorporating that information into their work already, and 73 percent said what they'd learned had changed their behavior.

"The results also indicate that many Presidential Management Fellows, who will continue on to upper management positions within the federal government, do not have a strong understanding of the current climate of federal disability policies," the team members wrote in their preliminary report on the forum. "However, a simple forum created a large attitudinal shift for the participants."

NSA is trying to do its part by pushing its model program even further. Weber, Dahlen, and Linda Grimm, the director of NSA's Equal Employment Opportunity and Diversity Office, still think the agency can do better.

"It's not like we've totally overcome all obstacles," Grimm says.

"We shy away from being the model because we'd like the [disability] numbers to be higher," Weber says, noting that the agency hires people based on their abilities rather than their disabilities. "We hired a gentleman who's a paraplegic and he's a computer scientist, because he contributes to the mission. We didn't hire him because he's a paraplegic . . . He interviewed like everyone else, he was competing for the job against several other candidates, and the mission organization chose him."

Weber says that's how the program gains credibility with hiring managers. "We're not trying to force them to take employees," he says. "They're taking qualified candidates who can do the job, and they're staying."

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