Why words matter when it comes to disability accommodations in your office

This commentary is part of Federal News Radio’s special report, The Federal Office of the Future.

Earlier this summer, I had the pleasure of welcoming 50 leading thinkers on disability-related issues from across the federal sector to an important event. They had gathered for a first-of-its-kind strategic planning meeting convened by my agency, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP), in collaboration with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and the Office of Personnel Management (OPM).

Meeting these concerned and engaged public servants was nothing short of inspiring.  They didn’t come to listen. They came to work.  They rolled up their sleeves, pinpointed key issues affecting the employment of those of us with disabilities, and—most importantly—worked together to devise potential strategies for addressing them.

Jennifer Sheehy, Acting Assistant Secretary for the Labor Department's Office of Disability Employment Policy
Jennifer Sheehy, Labor Department’s Office of Disability Employment Policy

As I reviewed the outcomes of that meeting, I was struck by just how much the way we talk about disability and employment has changed in recent years, and for the better.  Today, disability has rightfully taken its place in the larger conversation about diversity, and this is a good thing for not only those of us who work to advance disability inclusion, but also the nation at large.  That’s because an effective federal workforce is one that reflects the diverse citizenry it serves—which, of course, includes people with disabilities.

This was one of the principles underlying President Obama’s 2010 Executive Order 13548, Increasing Federal Employment of Individuals with Disabilities, which directed the federal branch to improve its efforts to employ those of us with disabilities through not only increased recruitment and hiring, but also retention and advancement.

Key to this is ensuring a commitment to inclusive policies and practices across the entire employment lifecycle, especially related to reasonable accommodations.  In other words, disability inclusion is about more than hiring; it’s also about providing appropriate supports to existing employees who may acquire disabilities due to age, illness or injury.

Given this, it wasn’t surprising that accommodations were one of the central themes at the strategic planning meeting.  What really heartened me, however, was the context in which they were discussed, which was universality.

There was unanimity that ensuring effective accommodations necessitates increased understanding of what accommodations really are—productivity tools that most agencies provide many employees, with and without disabilities, every day.  After all, like all people, those of us with disabilities need the right tools and environment to maximize our performance.  For example, as a wheelchair user with certain mobility limitations, I leverage voice recognition software and a low-tech typing aid in my day-to-day work, as well as automatic doors and low credenzas.

Words matter, so the shift in language from “accommodation” to “productivity enhancement” is making a big difference, helping demystify disability and better conveying a commitment to inclusion that is starting to produce measurable results in the federal sector.

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According to the latest data available from OPM, in fiscal year 2013, the federal government had more people with disabilities on-board than at any point in the past 33 years:  total permanent employees with disabilities were tallied at 234,395, or nearly 13 percent of the federal workforce.

As a policy wonk, I appreciate data.  It tells us what we’re doing well, where we need to improve and how to wisely invest our resources.  And these are really great numbers that indicate we’re on the right track.

But, as a person who also has a background in marketing, I’m always interested in what—or in this case, whom—such data represents.  In this case, it corresponds to real people, with real skills and talents, who are doing real things to improve the lives of real Americans, both with and without disabilities, every day.

For instance, they represent people like Kathy Peery.  As a legislative affairs specialist with the Department of Energy’s Office of Congressional and Intergovernmental Affairs, Kathy is a liaison to congressional offices and committees on matters from climate change to contracts and procurement to budgets.  If you want a primer on how things work on Capitol Hill, talk to Kathy—if you can catch her in between meetings.  To do her work, Kathy, who is blind, uses a variety of assistive and accessible technology tools, with a personal assistant helping to read inaccessible printed or scanned documents.

They also represent people like Rajiv Shah, a computer help desk specialist at the State Department.  Rajiv, who is also blind, uses screen reader technology to carry out his duties.  Rajiv obtained his position through the Schedule A hiring authority, which allows federal agencies to hire people with disabilities non-competitively.  If you’ve ever run into computer problems while crunching on a deadline like I have, you know how important people like Rajiv are.

The data also correspond to people like Anthony Baskin, a transportation specialist with the Federal Highway Administration.  Anthony, who is deaf, is part of the team that helps ensure our nation’s highway network continues to be among the safest and most technologically sound in the world.  He joined our nation’s workforce through the Workforce Recruitment Program, which connects federal agencies with highly qualified college students and recent graduates with disabilities.

As a citizen, I know that Kathy, Rajiv and Anthony are the types of people I want working for my government, and fortunately they are.

By continuing to elevate the conversation about disability and employment and focusing on the skills and talents those of us with disabilities have to offer our nation’s workforce, we in ODEP, working in partnership with EEOC and OPM, look forward to ensuring more people like us have the opportunities and supports to do so.


Jennifer Sheehy serves as the acting assistant secretary and deputy assistant secretary for the Labor Department’s Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP).

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