Jul 31, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Federal employees with disabilities push for greater equity

Vice President Kamala Harris, center, speaks while meeting with disabilities advocates in the Vice President's Ceremonial Office in Washington, D.C.

Vice President Kamala Harris speaks while meeting with disabilities advocates on July 14. Photo: Oliver Contreras/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Although progress has been made toward increasing the representation of people with disabilities in the federal workforce, more work needs to be done to achieve parity, NPR reports.

Between the lines: Despite the federal government setting a benchmark in 2017 calling for every agency to have at least 12% of its employees be comprised of people with disabilities, tracking progress has been inconsistent.

  • The Office of Personnel Management "does not routinely track or report retention data on employees with disabilities," according to the Government Accountability Office.
  • Additionally, progress has been made in the policy realm. Most 2020 presidential candidates offered disability policy plans and for the first time, White House press briefings have sign language interpreters, per NPR.

Driving the news: Despite the progress, disability rights activists note that significant hurdles remain.

  • Cindy Otis, for instance, a former CIA analyst and wheelchair user, told NPR that early in her career she often had to ask for help opening a heavy vault door.
  • "As a brand new, desperate kid, straight out of grad school with mountains of student debt, I already felt like my job was at risk and my reputation was at risk because it took them six months to put an automatic door opener for my vault door," Otis told NPR.

What they're saying: The author of the Americans with Disabilities Act, former Rep. Tony Coelho, said that greater enforcement is needed to ensure progress continues, per NPR.

  • "I always say the ADA is a great law, but if there's no enforcement it doesn't mean anything. It's just a piece of paper. And executive orders are the same thing. They're only a piece of paper unless there's enforcement"
  • Maria Town, president of the American Association of People with Disabilities, said that the pandemic has exposed areas for growth to achieve greater representation for individuals with disabilities.
  • "It's frustrating that the disability community has pushed for these accommodations for so long and have been denied so consistently, and when the moment comes that everyone needs to work remotely, it happens in an instant," Town said.
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