Will Federal Leadership on Improving Opportunities for People with Disabilities Start a Trend?


The federal government has attempted to take a leadership role in improving employment for people with disabilities.  Only last month, new regulations in Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act went into effect that encourage federal contractors to employ more people with disabilities and mandate better record keeping about hiring of people with disabilities.

“Despite nearly 25 years of the Americans with Disabilities Act, people with disabilities continue to face barriers to equal opportunity in employment,” states the ADA National Network website. “In 2011, the employment rate of adults with disabilities was 33.4 percent, as compared to 75.6 percent for others. Further, the full-time/full-year employment rate for people with disabilities was 20.7 percent, as compared with 55.5 percent for others.”

Leah Rudy, a JVS Chicago Employment Specialist, has high hopes for the federal initiative, which, according to President Obama, demands that the federal government become “a model employer of individuals with disabilities.”

“I truly believe that the federal initiative to hire more individuals with disabilities is a wonderful asset to both the federal and private sector,” said Rudy.

Three Strategies

Just as the federal government efforts for Americans with disabilities has three goals ­– reducing discrimination against Americans living with a disability, eliminating the stigma associated with disability and encouraging Americans with disabilities to seek employment in the federal workforce – the federal employment effort is a three-pronged strategy that affects all federal agencies.  The three strategies are:

  • a focus on the Pathways to Careers initiative that involves community colleges training people with disabilities
  • a new Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act that encourages increased federal contractors’ hiring of people with disabilities
  • the Disability Employment Initiative, an $80 million federal program to assist public workforce agencies like the Illinois Dept. of Human Services to increase their capacity to serve youth and adults who are unemployed, underemployed or receiving Social Security disability benefits.

Pathways to Careers is largely in the planning stage.  This year’s appropriation is being spent on a study to assess strategies for community colleges training people with disabilities to enter the workplace.

In sharp contrast, the new federal contractor rules in Section 503, which apply to any contract more than $10,000, should make an immediate difference in how many people with disabilities are employed in federally funded projects.  They establish a goal of seven percent employment for people with disabilities – not a quota, however – and require that contractors create partnerships with disability organizations to assist in finding and recruiting qualified job applicants with disabilities.  Section 503 also requires contractors to keep careful records of the partnerships and their other recruitment efforts regarding people with disabilities.

Rudy thinks this initiative will have “a significant impact on employment.”  She also has enthusiasm for   Leadership for the Employment of Americans with Disabilities (LEAD), which is an outreach/educational campaign created by the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

“LEAD’s goal is to increase the population of individuals with severe disabilities that are employed by the federal government,” Rudy said. “The lack of education around hiring individuals with disabilities is one of the biggest barriers, which makes LEAD such a wonderful program.”

JVS Chicago’s Historical Partnership

JVS Chicago has been involved with federal employment of people with disabilities for years.  Many federal office buildings in Chicago are serviced by janitors with disabilities who are employed through a contract with the agency.  Another JVS Chicago contract is for workers with disabilities at Hines Veterans Hospital who inspect all the flags used by the Veterans Administration – tens of thousands of them.

Rudy reports that JVS Chicago and the VA hospital at Great Lakes Naval Training Center have “a wonderful relationship – we get job listings from them almost daily. The JVS counselors have received several trainings regarding federal employment and how to properly apply for federal positions – for example, the right way to create a federal resume and a Schedule A Letter.”

Federal programs are expected to resonate within the private sector, too.  The space exploration program was a key ingredient in the late 20th century’s technology surge, and the national park system served as a model for state and local projects.  But Helene Levine, a JVS Chicago Director of Employer Service Representatives, doesn’t think private sector success will follow automatically.

“I truly believe that the most effective model for making the employer a customer, as well as educating and listening to employers, is through consistent relationship building,” said Levine. “Employment specialists must adopt a broader attitude of learning more about the employer’s perspective and how we can be of assistance.  To increase the hiring of people with disabilities – whether it is federally directed employment or not – rehabilitation agencies have to listen and to learn about business.”

Employers interested in hiring pre-screened, qualified JVS Chicago clients with disabilities should call 855.INFO.JVS or email info@jvschicago.org.

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