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Disability Awards Shed Light on Underrepresented Workers

By John J. Kruzel
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Dec. 10, 2008 – The Defense Department recognized some of its outstanding disabled employees in a ceremony here yesterday that doubled as a forum to advance the cause of disabled workers.

Though federal employers should focus on disabled workers’ abilities, not their limitations, that’s more wishful thinking than reality, a government official said yesterday at the Defense Department’s Disability Awards Ceremony here.

“People with disabilities are much more likely to be unemployed than to be hired by the federal government. And there’s something wrong with that picture,” said Christine M. Griffin, commissioner of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and keynote speaker at the ceremony.

Griffin characterized as “dismal” the current number of disabled employees on Uncle Sam’s payroll, representing less than 1 percent of the federal work force.

“We can always do better,” Griffin said. “We are at kind of an all-time low.”

Of the 6,000 federal senior executives, only 35 are severely disabled, Griffin said. And disabled federal employees endure pay gaps compared to the salaries of their counterparts, she added.

“This doesn’t reflect the public we serve,” said Griffin, who was paralyzed in a car crash while in college and uses a wheelchair. “This is not what society looks like.”

Griffin said employment correlates to one’s level of life satisfaction, and she stressed that champions of disabled workers must emerge to change employers’ perceptions and hiring practices.

“I know that self worth and net worth are linked together,” she said. “To deny that to millions and millions of people with disabilities is wrong.”

David S.C. Chu, undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, said the Defense Department employs about 5,000 disabled workers, or 1 percent of its civilian work force.

“While that percentage may be higher than some other agencies, we know we can do better,” Chu said. “The emphasis should not be on what you can’t do; the emphasis should be on what you can do.”

A network of programs in the federal community helps disabled workers and their employers.

Dinah F.B. Cohen directs the Defense Department’s Computer/Electronic Accommodations Program, which has provided technical assistance to disabled employees for nearly 20 years. In fiscal 2008, she said, the program filled more than 10,000 requests for accommodations, almost half of which supported wounded servicemembers.

“When you see that 44 percent of those accommodations were directly related to support our men and women with devastating injuries, I feel we are making a difference,” Cohen said. “We have gotten rid of that excuse, ‘I can’t afford to accommodate [disabled employees].”

On behalf of the Defense Department, Chu presented awards to the following outstanding employees with disabilities:

-- Gary Szymanski, Department of the Army;

-- Dierdre McVoy, Department of the Navy;

-- Joanne Jordan, Department of the Air Force;

-- Darrell H. Gates, Army and Air Force Exchange Service;

-- Frank William Jenkins, Jr., Defense Commissary Agency;

-- Yvonne E. Brauer, Defense Contract Management Agency;

-- Richard Allen Larue, Defense Finance and Accounting Service;

-- Michael D. Martin, Defense Information Systems Agency;

-- David E. Anders, Defense Logistics Agency;

-- Georgia Williams-Fitzpatrick, Department of Defense Education Activity;

-- Dorthea Barbour, National Guard Bureau; and

-- Paul W. Kahn, National Security Agency.

In addition, the Department of the Army took the honors for best military department, the Defense Logistics Agency accepted the award for best mid-size agency, and the Defense Threat Reduction Agency earned the prize for the best small agency.

Award recipient David E. Anders works as a supply supervisor at a Defense Logistics Agency office in Columbus, Ohio. Anders, who was paralyzed from the chest down at age 16 after a car accident, uses a wheelchair in the office. Despite his injury, he’s no less efficient than his coworkers.

“Actually, I move a little faster than most of them do. I get yelled at all the time for buzzing around,” said Anders, who has completed five marathons, including one that he was forced to finish with a flat tire on his wheelchair.

Anders -- who calls himself not “disabled” but “super-abled” -- said a positive attitude can help one transcend a handicap and change people’s perceptions.

“If you have a positive attitude, a can-do attitude, people will look past the disability,” he said.

His advice to employers who are skeptical of disabled workers: “Give them a chance, and let them show you what they can and can’t do.”

Contact Author

Christine M. Griffin
David S.C. Chu

Related Sites:
U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission

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