Every day across the nation, and in fact the world, people with disabilities add significant value to America’s federal contractor workforce.
Just one example is Helen Chang, a Web developer with a multi-national technology services corporation. Helen, who is blind, works for the company’s defense division, which develops custom websites and online systems for the U.S. Department of Defense. The job requires considerable skills, and Helen has them.
Helen’s employer hired her shortly after her graduation from the University of Texas at Austin. The key to attracting her was a flexible and inclusive work environment open to the skills and talents of all qualified individuals, including people with disabilities.
At the Labor Department, we are committed to ensuring that more talented people with disabilities like Helen have equal opportunity to find, secure and keep good jobs — and that more federal contractors have the opportunity to benefit from their skills. This commitment is at the heart of the historic updates to Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act that took effect last month. These updates, along with updates to the Vietnam Era Veterans’ Readjustment Assistance Act, will be enforced by the department’s Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs.
As the department’s disability “policy shop,” we in the Office of Disability Employment Policy were proud to assist OFCCP in developing these rules. We now we stand at the ready to help federal contractors understand how to institute inclusive policies and practices that will assist them in complying with the rules.
As part of this, last week we renewed our alliance with the National Industry Liaison Group, an umbrella organization for more than 60 local industry liaison groups representing federal contractors across the country that focuses on promoting affirmative action and equal employment opportunity.
We also will provide technical assistance to federal contractors through the ODEP-funded Job Accommodation Network and Employer Assistance and Resource Network. Both of these services offer employers free, expert consultation on strategies — such as return-to-work policies and employee resource groups — that help foster a disability-inclusive organizational culture. Policies like these are essential for ensuring that those of us with disabilities, whether our disabilities are visible or not, can work openly, with pride in who we are, and without fear of discrimination.
Fostering such a culture of inclusion is the key to achieving the goals of the new Section 503 rule, which requires federal contractors to invite applicants and employees to self-identify as people with disabilities. Such invitations are permissible under the Americans with Disabilities Act when the question is being asked for affirmative action purposes.
In an interview conducted not long after she was hired, Helen encouraged job seekers in a similar position to be open to education and improvement. “Be open to learning new technologies and software, anything that will help you be successful on the job,” she said.
Employers can benefit from openness too – for example, by keeping an open mind about the skills and talents people with disabilities have to offer. Clearly, Helen’s employer benefited by doing so – and I like to think my employers at the Labor Department have as well! We in ODEP look forward to helping more federal contractors, and all employers for that matter, do the same.
Kathy Martinez is the assistant secretary of labor for disability employment policy.