New rules giving people with disabilities more opportunities

PITTSBURGH — It took Aaron Bosley about a year to find a job.

Bosley started looking for full-time work when he was still a student at the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York in 2004. “At that time, it was hard to find work in the IT field,” he said in an interview at Highmark’s Pittsburgh headquarters last week. “I sent my resume all over the state of New York and never heard anything back.”

As he talked, he moved his hands and an interpreter translated.

For Bosley, who has been deaf since he was 6 months old, the job hunt paid off in April 2005 when Highmark found him through a Pittsburgh-based consulting service.

Thanks to new regulations that became effective in March setting hiring goals, other federal contractors are now on the hunt to give veterans and other individuals with disabilities the same kind of opportunities.

The U.S. Department of Labor made changes to regulations implementing a section of the federal Rehabilitation Act, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of disabilities. The changes became effective March 24 as part of an effort to reduce high unemployment rates for veterans and people with disabilities and strengthen contractors’ affirmative action and nondiscrimination policies.

March 2014 data from the U.S. Department of Labor show that individuals with disabilities make up 19.5 percent of the workforce. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate for disabled individuals in March was 14.5 percent, an increase of 1.5 percent since March 2013. While unemployment for disabled individuals increased, the unemployment rate for those without disabilities decreased from 7.4 percent in March 2013 to 6.5 percent in March 2014.

“Even though money is being spent on rehabilitation programs, people are not finding jobs,” said Kathleen Klinemann, CEO of Tripil, an independent living center for individuals with disabilities based in Washington, Pa.

The Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs estimates that more than 45,000 companies — a list that includes names such as Royal Dutch Shell, AT&T and Dell —are federal contractors or subcontractors.

Under the new regulations, these companies will aspire toward a 7 percent utilization goal for veterans and individuals with disabilities. The goal refers to every job category for a contractor or for an entire workforce as a whole if the contractor has 100 or fewer employees.

Other highlights of the regulations include data collection, which will monitor the effects of companies’ outreach; the opportunity for employees to self-identify, or voluntarily let their employers know they have a disability; and records access, which will allow the compliance office to review any documents related to compliance checks.

Though disability advocates believe the changes will be helpful, some also believe companies need to create a more disability-friendly environment if they want any employees with disabilities to self-identify. Because of some of the stigmas associated with disabilities, employees might decide to keep their companies in the dark.

According to Patricia Shiu, director of the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs, no company will be cited for a violation simply for failing to achieve the goal, but federal investigators will be looking for evidence that companies are taking the required steps to achieve the goal by conducting meaningful outreach and recruitment, and eliminating barriers to employment for people with disabilities.

“Failure to achieve a goal would not be a violation of the rule; but failure to try is,” said Ms. Shiu.

Because of the new regulations, up to 465,000 people living with a disability may have a chance at gaining employment within the next year, according to Tony Coelho, the primary sponsor of the Americans with Disabilities Act and former California congressman. The act, which prohibits discrimination based on disability, was enacted by Congress in 1990.

“In my view, it’s a real game-changer,” Coelho said. “For those of us with disabilities, a job is what’s critical.”

One of the components of the new regulations is that companies invite future and current employees to voluntarily self-identify with paperwork similar to an ethnicity form.

The form uses prescribed language such as, “Yes, I have a disability,” “No, I don’t have a disability,” and “I don’t wish to answer.” An employee does not have to disclose the specific disability.

Joyce Bender, CEO of Bender Consulting Services at Penn Center West, helps those with disabilities find jobs.

Bender said she already has been contacted by several companies asking for help in regards to the new regulations. She said many of these companies are close to reaching their 7 percent goal, they just don’t know it yet because employees may have been hesitant to self-identify.

“If you want people with disabilities to self-identify, you have to do things to demonstrate we are disability friendly,” Bender said. “They know people look differently at them.”

According to Sara Oliver-Carter, vice president of diversity and inclusion at Highmark, in the past 20 years, the Pittsburgh insurer has hired around 100 people with disabilities with the help of Bender Consulting. The company strives to make its employees feel valued by using a three-pronged approach — comfort, disability etiquette and partnerships — to promote a culture of understanding, she said.

“People need to be able to say, ‘Yeah, I have a disability and I’m proud of it,’” Oliver-Carter said.

Highmark also has an Abilities Resource Group that helps employees with disabilities and is working to establish another program, The Voice, which will be similar to LGBTQ’s SafeZone. SafeZone was created to develop supportive environments in schools and workplaces for those in the lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender community.

According to Bender, companies need to understand that there’s a difference between being tolerant and being welcoming.

“What you’re going to have to do is create a culture and demonstrate from the very top this is important to this company. Until all of that happens, people would not self-identify immediately,” she said.

No deadline has been set for companies to meet their 7 percent utilization goal, but companies need to start now if they want to create a more disability-friendly environment, Bender said.

“For me, I’m thankful to have a job,” Bosley said.

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