Environmental Factor, August 2011, National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences
NIEHS and NIH personnel unite for disabilities awareness
According to the latest statistics released in June by the U.S. Department of Labor, the unemployment rate among Americans with disabilities soared nearly 8 percent higher than the 9 percent national average. For that reason, NIH officials hosted an innovative new seminar June 22 at NIEHS designed to promote disabilities awareness.
Conducted by the NIH Office of Equal Opportunity and Diversity Management (OEODM), the session sought to highlight many of the Federal employment incentives available to people with disabilities, while also seeking to dispel many of the myths surrounding their role in the workplace.
“More times than not, people meet the disability before they meet the person,” explained Gerard Roman, an equal employment opportunity (EEO) specialist with OEODM based at NIEHS. “Disabilities don't discriminate and it's important for people to know that individuals with a disability may be able to perform the essential functions of a job, with or without an accommodation.”
Over the span of two hours, seminar participants discussed a wide variety of topics, ranging from Federal laws such as the Americans with Disabilities Act(http://www.ada.gov/) (ADA) as amended, to the responsibilities of organizations such as NIEHS, before concluding with a step-by-step breakdown of the reasonable accommodations process itself - something many deem critical to the quest for equality.
“Reasonable accommodations are all about communication,” explained Kimberly Kirkpatrick, the disability employment program manager with NIH and the seminar's instructor. “If today's attendees take nothing else away from this class, I hope they understand that accommodating individuals with disabilities should be a simple, interactive process between the employee and the supervisor. The ADA Amendments Act clarifies that it is not intended to be a complicated process.”
Kirkpatrick and others agreed that while education seminars like this, in concert with ambitious new initiatives like the Schedule A Hiring Authority(http://www.opm.gov/disability/mngr_3-13.asp) , the Computer/Electronics Accommodations Program(http://cap.mil/) (CAP), and the Job Accommodation Network(http://askjan.org/) (JAN), are impressive steps toward equality, the climb is far from over. To that end, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has taken steps to raise the bar with its ambitious goal to have 2.5 percent of its total workforce comprised of individuals with severe or targeted disabilities by 2016.
“Moving forward, we have to get employees over their fear of requesting accommodations and we have to get supervisors over their fear of having open and honest discussions with their employees, disabled or not,” said Kirkpatrick. “In terms of awareness, we've got to be more proactive in getting the word out to the general public. The government has a lot of exciting opportunities open to people with disabilities and, at the end of the day, it's up to us to let them know that we genuinely want them to work for us.”
(Ian Thomas is a writer/editor in the NIEHS Office of Communications and Public Liaison)