The number of federal employees with severe disabilities has declined by nearly 20 percent over the last decade, challenging the long-held notion that the federal government is a haven of opportunity for such workers.

In fiscal 2003, federal agencies employed 25,551 workers who were deaf, blind, mentally ill or mentally retarded, or had other serious disabilities, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. That was a 19.8 percent decrease from 31,860 such federal workers in fiscal 1994, the EEOC found. The steady decline far surpassed the 7.6 percent reduction in overall civilian federal employment during the period, to 2.42 million workers (including the U.S. Postal Service).

The trend was among many employment issues highlighted in a new annual EEOC report on the federal workforce. The decline is important because the federal government always has striven to be a model employer that is open to everyone, said Catherine McNamara, a lawyer and adviser in the EEOC's Office of Federal Operations.

"The community of people with disabilities is a huge, untapped resource of many, many talented, qualified people who are not being drawn into the workplace," McNamara said. "And as the federal government faces more and more of a challenging world and it is dependent on its employees to meet those challenges, we're going to need to tap as many areas of talent as we can."

The contraction of the disabled federal workforce by nearly one-fifth surprised analysts and advocates for the 54 million Americans with disabilities. Nationwide, 35 percent of individuals with disabilities report being employed full or part time, compared with 78 percent of those without disabilities, according to a recent Harris poll.

Experts both inside and outside the government say they are not sure what accounts for the falling federal numbers. They theorize that more employees retired or left for jobs in a private sector that has grown more welcoming of disabled individuals, that federal recruiting efforts tapered off due to downsizing or that fewer employees are disclosing their disabilities.

"It's certainly a rather shocking decline," said Brewster Thackeray, a spokesman for the National Organization on Disability, an advocacy group. "I'm surprised because our impression has been that the government is making a sincere effort." Doug Gallegos, acting director of the Office of Affirmative Employment at the EEOC, said officials are studying the issue.

"There has been a lot of downsizing of the federal government. That may play some role in this," he said. "There has been a lot less hiring by the federal government, too, in the last 10 years. The fact that people are doing less hiring may mean that they are not recruiting as much and not recruiting . . . persons with targeted disabilities. But it's kind of preliminary at this point and we don't have anything solid."

Historically, the federal government has been considered a model in attracting and accommodating disabled workers.

The government extended civil rights protections and employment opportunities to disabled individuals long before the 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act guaranteed equal opportunity for them in public accommodations, private employment, transportation, and state and local government services.

The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 banned discrimination against disabled people in federal hiring and required agencies to develop affirmative action plans to hire and promote more people with disabilities. It mandated that agencies provide "reasonable accommodations," such as interpreters or modified work schedules, to help disabled workers do their jobs. And it required agencies to buy, develop and maintain "accessible electronic and information technology," such as voice recognition software and computer screen readers.

Such laws, as well as federal hiring policies, have helped Mary Jean Secoolish and thousands of others with disabilities carve out successful careers in public service. Secoolish, who is deaf, is a supervisory attorney in the EEOC's Office of Federal Operations and has worked full time for the agency since 1985.

EEOC managers have always been supportive, Secoolish said. But her introduction to federal service, as an intern at the Justice Department in 1980, was not a positive one. Secoolish's boss learned she was deaf when she introduced herself on her first day, her government-provided interpreter in tow.

"He doesn't realize that the interpreter interprets everything he says," Secoolish recalled in an interview. "[H]e turns around and he says, 'What am I going to do with her?' "

Secoolish eventually won the boss over with her hard work, and later workplace experiences were better. A supervisor at EEOC once quashed complaints by subordinates that Secoolish was getting favored treatment because she did not have to review legal cases with audiotaped depositions. (She handled cases with transcripts instead.)

"I never failed to pull my share of the work, and he knew that," she said.

Although Secoolish considers the federal workplace receptive to people with disabilities, she said officials could do more to publicize job openings and the special rules that allow disabled applicants to bypass much of the cumbersome federal hiring process.

"The application process to government jobs is very intimidating," she said. "I don't think that they advertise that they are looking for people with disabilities." Melanie Brunson, executive director of the American Council of the Blind, said newer technology used in government offices is not always as accessible to disabled individuals as it should be. And one of the biggest problems is a lack of awareness by human resources officials of the capabilities of people with disabilities, Brunson said.

"No matter what the law says, I think there's a certain number of people who are going to shy away from hiring somebody with a disability because they are not going to know how to cope with it," she said.

W. Roy Grizzard Jr., assistant secretary of the Office of Disability Employment Policy in the Labor Department, said the success of the Americans With Disabilities Act, which opened many private-sector doors, may help explain the decline in disabled federal workers.

"A lot of those people are being hired in private industry," he said.

The Bush administration, through the New Freedom Initiative, is promoting opportunities for disabled people by increasing access to technology, integrating disabled people into the workforce, and expanding educational and transportation options, Grizzard said. One such effort is a recruitment program that this year will provide more than 340 students or recent graduates with summer internships in government offices, he said. About 15 percent of the participants get permanent government jobs, Labor officials said.

Agency leaders also are personally encouraging the hiring of individuals with disabilities, he said. A May 24 memo from Labor Secretary Elaine L. Chao and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld urged agency heads to take part in the summer jobs program.

"There is a concerted effort in this administration to begin to turn that ship around," Grizzard said. The federal employment Web site, USAJobs (www.usajobs.opm.gov), has assistive technology such as screen readers to ensure that job listings are accessible to everyone, said Michael Orenstein, a spokesman for the Office of Personnel Management.

Also, OPM Director Kay Coles James has proposed changing hiring rules for people with disabilities to remove a requirement that the Department of Veterans Affairs or a recognized rehabilitation agency certify that job seekers are disabled, he said. The proposal would allow other federal agencies to certify a disability in some cases.

"If it's clearly obvious that the person has a disability, then why run them through the wringer of having to get things certified?" Orenstein said. "It's bureaucracy at its worst."

Peter Blanck, a law professor who is director of the Law, Health Policy & Disability Center at the Iowa College of Law, said employment opportunities for the disabled need to be improved across the board, and the federal government is no exception.

"The government has typically been a model for hiring and accommodating and has led the way for the private sector," he said. "And my hope would be that in the federal government we would not be seeing negatives."

EEOC attorney Mary Jean Secoolish, who is deaf, says officials could do more to publicize jobs in government and the special hiring rules for the disabled.