Disabled can flourish in IT, feds say

Disabled can flourish in IT, feds say

OPM Director Janice R. Lachance, in a memo to federal officials, says agencies must knock down employment barriers.

Officials, under executive order to hire more people with disabilities, say tech jobs are often a good fit

By Gail Repsher

Washington Technology

Information technology jobs are well-suited to people with disabilities, thousands of whom are already working in federal agencies, government officials say.

The government wants to expand the number of disabled employees in its IT work force. As of March, 5,452 people with disabilities had IT jobs in the executive branch, according to the Office of Personnel Management.

President Clinton on July 26 issued an executive order directing agencies to develop plans to hire 100,000 more disabled workers'many of them in IT jobs'by Sept. 25. He also urged agencies to use IT to increase telecommuting opportunities for the disabled [GCN, Aug. 7, Page 1].

'The administration feels that IT is one area in which the government can increase its representation of people with disabilities,' an OPM spokesman said.

Linda Jackson, disability services team leader at the Social Security Administration, agreed: 'IT jobs are quite suited for most people with disabilities if they have the basic qualifications.'

A push to get disabled workers into IT jobs could also help talent-starved agencies fill critical positions. Filling IT jobs was the No. 1 concern identified by respondents to the Association for Federal Information Resources Management's annual IT executive survey [GCN, Feb. 21, Page 14].

'It is imperative that we knock down the employment barriers that these candidates encounter when seeking a job with the federal government,' OPM Director Janice R. Lachance said in a July 26 memo to agency heads.

Show of numbers

The federal government'excluding the Postal Service, Congress and judicial branch'employs about 122,000 people who identify themselves as having disabilities. That's 7.2 percent of 1.8 million workers.

Under the new Clinton order, a worker is considered disabled if a physical or mental impairment substantially limits one or more major life activities, Lachance said.

IT advances will help agencies achieve Clinton's hiring goal, said Sally Katzen, deputy director for management at the Office of Management and Budget.

'There are any number of people with some limitations who want to work and can contribute,' she said. 'With technology, it is easier for them to do so, and we should take advantage of their strengths.'

Technology is critical to the professional success of many disabled workers, Unisys Corp. systems analyst Joy Relton said. Products developed by the company's assistive devices lab in Reston, Va., are used by the Coast Guard, the IRS and SSA.

Unisys has worked with Social Security for about five years, retrofitting users' systems and training disabled workers, Relton said.

Other agencies, including the Census Bureau, Small Business Administration and Transportation Department, have recently expressed interest in the technologies, said Glenn Dell, Unisys' manager of testing and integration.

'Part of the whole process is awareness and education,' added Relton, who is blind. 'Most agencies have no idea of the disabilities that could be accommodated.'

SSA has long emphasized the recruitment of people with disabilities, said Paul Barnes, the agency's deputy commissioner for human resources. 'SSA, for as far back as I can remember'32 years'has emphasized the idea of recruiting people who look like the people we serve,' he said.

Along with assistive devices and training, the agency provides interpreter services, personal assistance and a computer help desk for employees with disabilities.

Last year, 480, or 15.3 percent, of SSA's new hires had disabilities. Barnes said he expects that the agency will hire the same number of disabled employees this year. As of July 31, the agency had hired 254 workers with disabilities'12.6 percent of its new workers.

SSA has had success in recruiting disabled workers, Barnes said, because of its reputation for providing assistive technologies and training and because its nationwide recruiting program reaches out to state vocational rehabilitation agencies and top college graduates.

OPM guidance about employing disabled workers can be found on the Web at www.opm.gov/disability.

The government is also working to open other federal doors to the disabled under Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act Amendments.

Section 508 requires agencies to make government systems accessible to disabled users [GCN, April 17, Page 1].

GCN assistant managing editor Julie Britt contributed to this report.

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