A Troublesome Decline in Disability Hiring

By Stephen Barr
Thursday, January 17, 2008

Most federal agencies are losing more employees with severe disabilities than they are hiring, and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission wants to get the government back on path as a model employer.

An EEOC management directive, which went into effect in October 2003, requires federal agencies with more than 1,000 employees to recruit disabled individuals and set hiring goals, but 43 percent of federal agencies have not established such goals, the EEOC said in a report released Tuesday.

"This may account for why little progress is being realized," the report said.

In fiscal 2006, the government had about 2.6 million permanent and temporary workers, and 24,442 were deaf, blind, mentally retarded or had other serious disabilities.

That year, the severely disabled represented 0.94 percent of the government's workforce, the lowest rate in 20 years, according to the report.

Even the overall growth in government employment did not help the recruitment and retention of disabled employees. The government's workforce grew by 135,732 between fiscal 1997 and 2006, a 5.48 percent increase, while the number of employees with severe disabilities decreased by 4,229 during, a loss of 14.75 percent.

The report found essentially the same pattern when temporary employees were excluded from the data. In fiscal 2006, the severely disabled represented 0.97 percent of the full-time, permanent government workforce, also a 20-year low.

The report suggests that bias or lack of training for managers is one explanation for the reduction of disabled employees. "Within the federal government, unfounded fears, myths and stereotypes persist regarding the employment of people with disabilities," the report said. "These beliefs may unlawfully influence some employment decisions."

The 1973 Rehabilitation Act banned discrimination against disabled people in federal hiring and required agencies to develop plans to hire and promote disabled workers. It also required agencies to provide "reasonable accommodations," such as modified work schedules, special computers and other equipment.

But at the largest departments the number of permanent government employees with severe disabilities has dropped over the past two decades. Only the Treasury and Labor departments have increased the percentage of severely disabled in their workforces, the report said.

There appears to be no single reason for the decline, but the EEOC report suggests several possible reasons in addition to issues of bias. They include the increase in contractors to fill jobs at lower pay grades, the reluctance of managers to use special hiring programs to recruit the disabled, and "the misperception of managers" that the severely disabled are not likely to be the best qualified applicants for professional jobs in their agencies.

Last year, at the urging of Commissioner Christine M. Griffin, the EEOC launched the Leadership for the Employment of Americans With Disabilities Initiative. Through LEAD, the EEOC has encouraged agency leaders, personnel and hiring officials and others to recruit more individuals with serious disabilities.

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