My Conversation with a Great Champion of Employment Opportunities for People with Disabilities

In celebration of National Disability Employment Awareness Month, I want to share an online chat I had with Kathy Martinez, Assistant Secretary of Labor for Disability Employment Policy. We discussed the work of the Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP), the business case for hiring people with disabilities, enhancing the capacity of the Workforce Development System to meet the employment-related needs of people with disabilities, and much more.

The Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP) was authorized by Congress in the Department of Labor’s FY 2001 appropriation. Recognizing the need for a national policy to ensure that people with disabilities are fully integrated into the 21st Century workforce, the Secretary of Labor delegated authority and assigned responsibility to the Assistant Secretary for Disability Employment Policy. ODEP is a sub-cabinet level policy agency in the Department of Labor.

Following is the first in a two-part series of highlights from our conversation.

Can you summarize the overall mission of ODEP and the government’s commitment to be a model employer for people with disabilities?

Kathy Martinez

Kathy Martinez

At ODEP, we work to influence national policy and promote effective workplace practices that ensure today’s workforce is inclusive of all people—including people with disabilities, such as myself. As part of this, we help the Federal Government deliver on its commitment to be a model employer of people with disabilities. In 2010, President Obama issued Executive Order 13548, which called on federal agencies to increase the recruitment and retention of people with disabilities. ODEP is proud to have been charged to assist Office of Personnel Management in implementing this Executive Order. We’re even more proud to see that it’s producing results! Last month, OPM reported that the share of new hires with disabilities is higher than at any point in the last 32 years.

This is outstanding news, for not only those of us who work to advance disability employment, but also the nation at large. For the federal workforce to be effective, it must accurately reflect the diverse citizenry it serves.

Those of us who work with people with disabilities are so impressed by all that ODEP has accomplished under your leadership. Can you highlight some of these accomplishments?
We are proud of our accomplishments over the last several years and look forward to building on the momentum in future years. One of our big accomplishments from that period is something I just mentioned—helping implement the Executive Order and ensure it delivers on its promise.

Another area I’m particularly proud of is our work on the Add Us In initiative. Through this program, we’ve increased employment opportunities for people with disabilities with small and minority-owned businesses by distributing $4.6 million to eight grantees across the nation. We’ve also made a lot of progress in promoting integrated employment at competitive wages as the preferred goal for individuals with significant disabilities by developing tools and assisting states to adopt such strategies.

Another major accomplishment I should mention has to do with data. We’ve established new and better systems for gathering credible, consistent data on disability employment by helping to fund and develop new supplements and tabulations for national employment surveys. Most notably, we sponsored the addition of disability-related questions to the Current Population Survey. Many people don’t realize this, but before then, there was no official government data on the employment of people with disabilities. All data came from disparate sources using different definitions of disability, so there was no way to measure “apples to apples” over time. That was a major problem.

How and to what extent has ODEP enhanced the capacity of the Workforce Development System to meet the employment-related needs of people with disabilities?

Christine McMahon

This is another accomplishment we are proud of. We’re doing this by collaborating with our sister agency, DOL’s Employment and Training Administration, on the Disability Employment Initiative, or DEI. Through this program, we issue policy guidance and award grants to state systems to improve education, training and employment outcomes for youth and adults who are unemployed, underemployed, and/or receiving Social Security disability benefits.

Since 2010, we’ve awarded more than $81 million in grants to 26 states through this initiative. The latest round of grants—the fourth year of funding—was announced just last September. And within the first four years, we’re already seeing great results.

Successes reported by DEI grantees and their stakeholders include increased numbers of people with disabilities seeking and receiving American Job Center services and increased enrollment in Workforce Investment Act-funded programs, as well as better data collection regarding these individuals’ employment outcomes. All grantees have certain requirements in common, such as the hiring of staff with expertise in disability and workforce development to serve as Disability Resource Coordinators, or DRCs. But they also have latitude in focusing on specific areas, for instance, youth or self-employment. For example, in New Jersey, an American Job Center planned an afterschool program for students with Individualized Employment Plans, or IEPs. This program has three main components: adult readiness, entrepreneurship and financial literary.

On the other end of the spectrum—and country—the Hawaii State VR agency and local American Job Centers are working to increase capacity for self-employment in rural areas, with a focus on farming and aquaculture. Washington State is also focusing on self-employment, by partnering with the Washington Access Fund to help individuals with disabilities develop business plans and identify funding sources for self-employment.

We’re also seeing some great models for cross-agency financial collaboration emerge. South Dakota is one example. In that state, the DEI grantee—the Department of Labor and Regulation—formed a close partnership with the state’s Vocational Rehabilitation agency to develop a unique method for sharing reimbursements among Employment Networks. Employment Networks, or ENs, are authorized employment service providers under the Ticket program.

Can you describe some of the common misconceptions and stereotypes about people with disabilities in the workplace?

Any myths that exist reflect a lack of exposure to people with disabilities. Like all people, those of us with disabilities need the right tools and work environments to do our jobs. A report released last year by the Job Accommodation Network revealed that most—58 percent—of job accommodations for employees with disabilities cost nothing, while those that do typically cost only $500—an outlay that most employers report pays for itself multiple-fold in the form of increased productivity.

So, in response to employers’ misconceptions, I like to call accommodations “productivity enhancements,” because that’s really what they are. From technology to flexible work arrangements, accommodations are something most employers already provide employees—with or without disabilities—every day. Just think about it. That smart phone you use to stay in touch while away from your desk? That ergonomic chair you requested to ease strain on your back? They’re accommodations—whether you identify as a person with a disability or not.

We know that the business case for hiring people with disabilities is a strong one. Overall, why does it make sense for businesses to hire people with disabilities?

It has to do with the value of multiple and diverse perspectives. Research tells us that groups outperform individuals—even brilliant individuals—working independently. Even further, groups representing a range of perspectives outperform those with superior, but similar, skill sets. So by fostering a corporate culture respectful of individual differences, including disabilities, businesses benefit from varied approaches to confronting challenges and achieving success. That’s why many of today’s most successful companies proudly deem diversity to be a core value.

In his book The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools, and Societies, University of Michigan researcher Scott Page summarizes this principle about as succinctly as possible: “diversity trumps ability.” He then goes on to illustrate how employee diversity creates higher performing organizations. Today more than ever, businesses need people with the ability to adapt to different situations and circumstances. They need people who think divergently. They need people who think diversely. As a leader, I’ll always choose a solution that represents an amalgam of opinions and insights rather than the one that approaches a problem from only one angle; because in business, as in society at large, diversity drives innovation. Disability is an important perspective to have at the table.

Of course, hiring people with disabilities can also be a positive strategy for expanding market share. Many people don’t realize this, but people with disabilities represent the third largest market share in the U.S. and as with any customer segment, one of the best ways to tap into the disability market is to ensure it is represented in your workforce.

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