Providing Equitable Employment Opportunities for People With Disabilities

The Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP) at the Labor Department turns 20 this year.

“In the past two decades, ODEP’s policy coordination role has proven extremely effective,” said Jennifer Sheehy, Deputy Assistant Secretary at ODEP. “We try to look broadly at what it takes for people with disabilities to be successful.” ODEP’s mission “is to develop and influence policies and practices that increase the number and quality of employment opportunities for people with disabilities.”

Dividing and Conquering Policy

ODEP works broadly across many areas impacting disability employment. To accomplish this, it divides its policy works among six critical teams:

  • an employer team (focused on helping employers attract and retain talented workers with disabilities),
  • an employment-supports team (focused on those support elements needed to maintain a job such as accommodations and transportation),
  • a workforce systems team (focused on the public workforce system),
  • a youth team (focused on helping youth transition from school into careers),
  • a research and evaluation team,
  • and an outreach team.

Since it is a small agency of about 50 employees, ODEP also relies on collaborating with teams within DOL and across the federal government, as well as with state governments and the private sector.

Workforce Recruitment Program

ODEP is home to the Workforce Recruitment Program, which has a database of resumes from college students and recent graduates with disabilities.

“We pull all these resumes from wonderful, talented [applicants] for the purpose of helping mentor them and then hopefully connect them to internships or full-time jobs in the federal government,” said Sheehy. She explained that federal employees will interview students and help them prepare for federal jobs.

The database accumulates around 2,500 resumes a year. The database can be used for Schedule A hiring. Schedule A is a special appointing authority that agencies can use to non-competitively appoint individuals.

The 2021 database for the Workforce Recruitment Program is available now for federal employers and hiring managers to access its diverse talent to fill open positions.

Tackling COVID

Programs are vital now when many people are dealing with unemployment due to the COVID-19 recession.

Currently, ODEP is researching the pandemic’s effects on young people with disabilities. This work is done through its youth policy development center, the Center for Advancing Policy and Employment for Youth (CAPE-Youth).

ODEP is also managing pilots in eight states called Retaining Employment and Talent After Injury/Illness Network (RETAIN). Through RETAIN, the participating states are testing early intervention strategies, including coordinating health care and career services, to improve stay-at-work or return-to-work outcomes of individuals who experience a work disability while employed. While the program existed before the pandemic, it is now playing a critical role in helping employees who are recovering from COVID-19.

Policy Through an Intersectional Lens

Sheehy acknowledged the new administration’s commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) and how it affects ODEP’s mission. President Joe Biden has already placed a focus on people with disabilities in his National Strategy for the COVID-19 Response and Pandemic Preparedness Plan. Biden’s focus on diversity will provide many opportunities for ODEP.

“I think we will be very, very busy,” said Sheehy. “It’s been extremely exciting to see all the executive orders that have come out that mention disability. We love to be part of the national priorities. I think it’s really important to ensure that people with disabilities are not an afterthought.”

Sheehy stressed the importance of intersectionality when discussing disability policy. “People with disabilities need to be considered in the national racial equity discussions and policy considerations, and racial equity needs to be considered when we look specifically at disability policy in employment. So, both directions are going to be critical,” said Sheehy. Sheehy referenced the higher prevalence of disabilities among people of color. Additionally, mental health conditions often go untreated in communities of color, and racial trauma plays a role in mental health.

More Resources

Additionally, if you want resources on how to make your workplace more inclusive for employees with disabilities, ODEP has great resources like its Job Accommodation Network (JAN) and the Employer Assistance Resource Network on Disability Inclusion(EARN). JAN provides free, expert and confidential guidance on workplace support and accommodations, including those that have arisen during the pandemic. EARN helps employers tap into the benefits of disability diversity. The website does this by educating public- and private-sector organizations on ways to build inclusive workplace cultures.