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Disability Employment Gets Bipartisan Support

Democratic Governor Jack Markell from Delaware and Republican Congressman Pete Sessions from Texas are nearly polar opposites ideologically speaking, but that has not stopped the two have from uniting together to help push a public-private initiative to get companies hiring disabled workers. Currently, over 80% of the disabled workforce is unemployed, a number the two agree is out of control.


In mid-July, the National Governors Association (NGA) met in Williamsburg, Virginia. The hot topic of the meeting was the nation’s extremely high unemployment rate, and how to create jobs for the millions of the nation’s unemployed. However, Governor Jack Markell, who was recently selected to head the NGA for the next year, chose to focus on the special needs community.

“There are a lot of people who want to be working in our country, and aren’t given a shot.” stated Gov. Markell, who dubbed his initiative, “A Better Bottom Line: Employing People with Disabilities.”

Governor Markell believes that a targeted initiative “can move the needle” in regards to hiring. He believes that the 80% unemployment rate those with disabilities face is “staggering” and that the solution is outreach and education.


Texas Representative Pete Sessions is the chair of the National Republican Campaign Committee (NRCC). His politics are polar opposite of Governor Markell, who is a Democrat and a huge supporter of the Obama campaign. Markell was surprised to find such a passionate ally in Sessions when it came to disability rights.

Representative Sessions has a son with Down syndrome. He has publicly commented on having one son in the upper 2% of academic ability, and one in the lowest 2%. It was the difference between the two that motivated him to become the leading Republican advocate in Congress for those with physical and mental disabilities.

Sessions stated that his sons, Bill, 22, and Alex, 18, both have needs and goals, they simply have to be met differently. “He can’t be the state wrestling champion like Bill, but he has pride and he wants to be successful, too.” Alex has already overcome obstacles to become an Eagle Scout like his older brother, father and grandfather before him.

It’s a well-known fact that today’s GOP does not celebrate former Republican president George H.W. Bush’s Americans with Disabilities Act, signed in 1990. Sessions is not looking for another government-driven program. On the contrary, he thinks there are far too many at the state and federal level currently. He got behind Markell’s initiative because it’s a public-private initiative that doesn’t force businesses to do anything.

While Markell doesn’t have the personal experience that Sessions has to spur his desire for change, he did have a moment where the light bulb turned on. Markell was attending an event sponsored by Bank of America, when he met a newly hired 25-year-old with Down syndrome. Markell asked the new hire what he did before getting the job with Bank of America, and and the young man responded that for six years he watched TV with his mom and Dad. Markell knew it was time for change.

While it has taken a while for Markell to bring the issue into focus, he signed the Employment First Act (House Bill 319) into law in Delaware, which requires state agencies that supply services to the disabled to also consider hiring them. This is the first step in what Markell and Sessions hope will be many of positive change for workers with disabilities.


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Non-Disabled Employment Still Way Ahead of Disability Hiring

Government Accountability Office GAO Seal

In July of 2010, President Obama ordered the government to hire at least 100,000 new employees with disabilities over the following five years. Two years into this executive order, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) announced on May 25, 2012 some rather disappointing statistics in a report criticizing the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) and the Labor Department (DOL).

Under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, an employee is officially classified as disabled if he or she has “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.” The United Nations reports that over 650 million people fall under this classification, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention claims that 47.5 million Americans have a disability. That’s nearly 21.8 percent of the population in the United States.

Unfortunately, disabled workers battle an unfair stigma of being unequal to non-disabled workers in regards to what they can contribute to the workplace. When you couple the social stigma with educational barriers to success, it paints a fairly grim picture. Students with disabilities are statistically more likely to drop out of high school, and less than 36.4 percent of high school students with disabilities earn a diploma. With this in mind, it’s obvious to see the effect this has on the number of disabled students pursuing a college degree, which impacts the employment statistics as well.

There are many advocates fighting the stigmas surrounding disabled employees. One of the champions of the cause is Rebecca Cokely, White House Director of Priority Placement.

“Equal employment means to me going beyond a functional shift and resulting in a philosophical shift in the expectations of young people with disabilities so that in elementary school, when students present what they want to be when they grow up, no one will say that a kid with a disability cannot be an astrophysicist, a lawyer, a chef, or whatever they may want to be,” Cokely said.

The OPM has failed to include all setbacks in its mandatory reports to the White House. That office has also failed to implement disability hiring training programs for agency officials. There is question as to the quality of the data being used to measure the OPM’s progress in meeting the goals set in July of 2010.

Some additional disturbing facts from the OPM include:

    • Of the 66 agency plans for increasing the hiring of disabled employees, which represents more than 99 percent of the federal civilian executive branch workforce, only 7 met the OPM’s 13 criteria;
    • More than half of all agency plans met eight or fewer of the 13 criteria;
    • 29 of the plans had no numerical goals for hiring disabled employees;
    • Nine did not identify an official person to oversee the hiring initiative.

“Although federal agencies have taken the first step by submitting action plans to OPM for review, many agency plans do not meet the criteria identified by OPM as essential to becoming a model employer of people with disabilities,” GAO said in its report.

The OPM acknowledges the government is behind schedule in regards to the 200,000 employee goal. In 2010 and 2011, the government has hired 20,000 of the required 200,000. To meet the goal, the government would need to hire 60,000 disabled workers per year, if it were to meet the 5 year plan.

Part of the challenge does rest with the employees. Many employees with disabilities choose not to disclose their disabilities on the voluntary disability disclosure, for fear it will cause workplace discrimination. The DOL plans to promote voluntary self-reporting by employees with a marketing campaign to get the word out and correct the underrepresented nubmers currently reported.


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