Disabled Honorees Pave Trail for Others to Follow
By Terri Moon Cronk
American Forces Press Service
BETHESDA, Md., Dec. 7, 2011 Nineteen Defense Department employees with disabilities who soon would receive awards for their outstanding work have helped to tear down barriers for others who will follow them, the Pentagon's director of disability programs and equal opportunity said here yesterday.
Speaking with reporters before the 31st annual Department of Defense Disability Awards Ceremony, Stephen King said the event does more than showcase this year’s DOD outstanding employees and service members who have disabilities.
"Whether they intended to or not, … they are addressing attitudinal barriers within an organization that we can only benefit from in the future," he said.
The annual ceremony highlights what individuals with disabilities can do, whether they're in uniform or never have served, King said. Four Defense Department components also were honored for their excellence in hiring individuals with disabilities.
This is the second year service members with disabilities were included as honorees, King said. "It's added a new aspect to the ceremony, and it's something we … needed to do."
The recognition program helps people understand that disabilities do not limit an individual, he said. "There's nothing limiting them from being successful in what they do,” he added. “All our award winners have excelled, and we need to recognize them."
But while DOD is a top employer of those with disabilities, King said, not everyone with a disability wants to disclose it.
"It's a personal decision, and every person has a different reason," he said. "Some people are there, some will get there, others may never [disclose their disabilities]. In the end, that's OK. DOD is still a model employer of people with disabilities, and we need to make sure we provide the opportunity for everyone's abilities and skills."
King, said he has a disability that isn’t apparent, and that he made sure he was comfortable when he told his boss about the condition.
"I had to trust my employer [and] know how the information was going to be used, and how to be protected, before I was willing to say, 'I have a disability,'" he said.
Since that time, numerous federal government programs have been established to accommodate those with disabilities. This year, President Barack Obama issued an executive order calling for diversity in the federal workforce. He also issued a proclamation declaring October "National Disability Employment Awareness Month."
While significant strides have been made at the DOD level, work remains to be done, King said.
“We know we have to create an inclusive, accepting working environment in which individuals who are already employed in DOD feel comfortable disclosing a disability," he added. “Managers and human resources professionals need the tools to use hiring authorities that exist to expedite hiring individuals with disabilities.”
Also critical, King said, is making sure people with disabilities know reasonable accommodations exist to "allow them to perform the functions of their jobs successfully."
Disabled or not, diversity and what it brings to the table in the organization is important, he said.
"Individuals with disabilities bring a unique perspective, in part because of the challenges they may face," he explained. Diversity is an important factor in DOD, and it's also a necessary element of the federal government as a whole, he said.
"I'm in the field because I love what I do," King told reporters. "As the director of the disabilities program, I understand the importance of shining that spotlight on outstanding individuals with disabilities."