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OPM touts progress on disability hiring

Government now employs the highest percentage of disabled workers in 20 years, report says.

The federal government now boasts more workers with disabilities than at any time in the past two decades, the Office of Personnel Management announced Wednesday.

Executive branch agencies employed 204,189 people with disabilities in fiscal 2011, representing 11 percent of the total federal workforce, OPM said in a report on its progress in meeting goals set out in a July 2010 executive order. That figure, which includes veterans who are more than 30 percent disabled, is up slightly from 10.7 percent in fiscal 2010.

People with disabilities were also better represented among new hires. They accounted for 14.7 percent of new hires in fiscal 2011, up from 10.3 percent in fiscal 2010. Those figures also include 30 percent disabled veterans.

“We need the talents and creativity of all people -- including people with disabilities -- to help do the work of the American people,” OPM Director John Berry said in a statement accompanying the report. “We are doing anything possible to remove barriers to their employment, and the good news is that we’re moving in the right direction, and you can see it in the numbers.”

The 18,738 new hires with disabilities in fiscal 2011 put the government on its way to meeting Executive Order 13548’s goal of bringing on 100,000 disabled workers by 2015, Berry said. He added there is still a long way to go.

OPM noted it has beefed up training on recruitment techniques, the use of Schedule A hiring authority, reasonable accommodation and helping injured employees return to work. In addition, 101 people with disabilities received job offers and 84 have been hired off a shared list of candidates for positions at a range of grade levels, the report stated.

The agency’s largely positive assessment comes just a few months after the Government Accountability Office criticized OPM’s training programs and said its reports to the White House glossed over some setbacks. GAO also found fault with OPM’s methods of measuring disability hiring.

Employees with targeted disabilities such as blindness and deafness also remained a tiny portion of the federal workforce, at 0.96 percent in fiscal 2011.

OPM’s figures appear to represent progress, but time will tell exactly how much and whether it can be sustained, said Jason Olsen, president of Federal Employees With Disabilities, a nonprofit group established in March. He noted that given the deficiencies highlighted in GAO’s May report, it is difficult to tell how accurate OPM’s count is. He also said historically, four out of 10 people hired under Schedule A authority leave government before the end of their two-year probationary period and never are converted to full-time positions. One possible reason for the high rate of departures during the probationary period could be inadequate accommodations, he said.

Olsen said that in addition to improving accommodations, the government should focus on ensuring employees with disabilities are given opportunities for promotions. Getting more disabled employees in high-level career positions is critical to changing the perception of disabled workers -- another barrier to recruitment and advancement -- he said.

The Government Printing Office hired the highest percentage of disabled employees overall in fiscal 2011, at 25.5 percent of new hires. It was followed by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (22.4 percent), OPM (21.4 percent), the Veterans Affairs Department (20.9 percent) and the Railroad Retirement Board (20.5 percent).

The Securities and Exchange Commission hired the lowest percentage of employees with disabilities, at 3 percent. The National Labor Relations Board, Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, Federal Trade Commission and Broadcasting Board of Governors also ranked near the bottom.

OPM’s report came one day before President Obama issued a proclamation to mark the 22nd anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which he described as “a historic piece of civil rights legislation.”

This story has been updated with comment and background.

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