Managers’ attitudes get in the way of disability hiring

By Emily Long

February 17, 2011

Negative attitudes toward people with disabilities are a key barrier to meeting hiring goals, according to federal officials.

The government faces challenges in hiring and retaining disabled workers because of misperceptions about their capabilities, along with a lack of awareness about reasonable accommodations, witnesses told members of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Oversight of Government Management Subcommittee during a hearing on Wednesday afternoon. Managers and employees must change their views of disabled workers, the witnesses said.

"Attitudinal barriers continue to be the biggest problem," Office of Personnel Management Deputy Director Christine Griffin said. "The only way to get rid of attitudinal barriers is to hire people with disabilities."

President Obama in July 2010 issued an executive order directing federal agencies to take steps to meet a goal of hiring an additional 100,000 disabled employees over five years. Agencies are required to develop plans for promoting employment opportunities for disabled individuals; increase their use of the Schedule A excepted service hiring authority for applicants with disabilities; and boost participation of people with disabilities in internships, fellowships, and training and mentoring programs.

In addition to hiring initiatives, the directive requires agencies to improve retention of disabled workers. Among strategies available to them, according to the order, are beefing up training, using agencywide pools of money to provide reasonable accommodations, increasing technology access, and ensuring the accessibility of physical and virtual workspaces.

Recruiting and retaining individuals with targeted disabilities -- deafness, blindness, missing extremities, partial or complete paralysis, convulsive disorders, mental retardation, mental illness, and distortion of the limbs and/or spine - are particular challenges, witness said. According to Equal Employment Opportunity Commission data, the portion of federal workers with targeted disabilities decreased 9.43 percent from fiscal 2000 to fiscal 2009, and just 0.88 percent of current government employees have targeted disabilities.

Agency leaders should know there are repercussions if they don't reach disability hiring targets, EEOC Commissioner Chai Feldblum said. They also have to understand how meeting the directive's goals fits their strategic mission. It's "not rocket science," she added.

According to Griffin, agencies are engaged in disability hiring issues because they are being held accountable for their success. "We for a long time have been trying to get agencies to do this," she said. "The difference right now is we have their attention."

OPM is working on veterans' hiring initiatives, promoting telework for disabled employees and presenting a series of training sessions with EEOC to help agencies comply with the executive order, Griffin said.

Managers also struggle to approve and provide accommodations that would help disabled employees perform their jobs, witnesses agreed.

"There are lots of cases filed when disabled employees aren't given [reasonable] accommodation," Griffin said. "Many are because the manager thinks their budget will have to cover it. We need to take that decision away from the local manager so they're not thinking about whether an employee deserves it or whether they can afford it."

By Emily Long

February 17, 2011