Employers and business groups are fighting an Obama administration proposal that at least 7 percent of employees of federal contractors are individuals with disabilities. Federal contractors and subcontractors, including companies such as Lockheed Martin and Boeing, comprise about a quarter of the workforce in the US and take in some $700 billion in contracts annually. Disability advocates had played a significant role in calling for the changes, noting that the previous provision that contractors make a “good faith” effort was, in the words of Patricia Shiu, who heads the Department of Laborís Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs, “not working.”
The new requirement is intended as “part of a broader federal effort” to make finding work easier for individuals with disabilities including injured war veterans, notes the†Wall Street Journal. The unemployment rate for individuals with disabilities was 12.9 percent in January, compared to 8.7 percent for those without disabilities. Moreover, 79.2 percent of working-age people with disabilities are out of the work force as compared to 30.5 percent of people with disabilities, as the Labor Department reported in December. A recent study has indeed found that the majority of individuals with developmental disabilities†simply have nothing to do all day.
The new proposal will not establish quotas but will call for employers to meet the goal of 7 percent of its workforce being individuals with disabilities via increased data collection and required annual self-reviews. Companies that do not meet the target could have their government contracts cancelled or would not be eligible to win new contracts until they meet the target.†Businesses are countering that the new proposal does amount to levying quotas, that they are not sure if they will be able to find sufficient numbers of workers with disabilities with the requisite skills and that they fear having to fire current employees to meet the government’s requirements. They also say that it will be difficult to comply with the law as, under the current law, employers cannot ask about a potential worker’s disabilities during the hiring process.
The Labor Department’s Shiu notes that people will be asked to “voluntarily self-identify” a disability for the purposes of data collection. As Kevan Johnson, an employment consultant with REACH of Dallas, a nonprofit that assists individuals with disabilities lead independent lives, observes to the†Wall Street Journal,
…stronger regulations are needed because severely disabled workers are being overlooked by contractors “who think they can’t do the job.” Mr. Johnson said employers might not be aware of workplace accommodations they could make to enable a disabled person to do their job. “There’s an education process,” he said.
In addition, disability advocates note that new technologies have made it easier for employers to make accommodations for individuals with disabilities in the workplace.
The Obama administration has hailed the changes as one of the most significant civil rights developments since the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990. With my teenage autistic son Charlie turning 21 in just a few years — meaning that he will no longer be covered under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act — I can’t say how much such a proposal means to his future. Much of Charlie’s current education is centered around vocational training and, once school ends, we know that he will be eager to have something to do. For him to have a job doing meaningful, productive work in the community is one of our greatest goals.
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