When Christopher Booher opens his email at work, a robotic voice rapidly reads the words to him.
As a blind employee at the National Institute of Mental Health in Rockville, Booher relies on the screen-reading software. But the 33-year-old says it's not just technology that makes him comfortable at work. When he interviewed for a job as a grants manager four years ago, the supervisor was open to working with someone who is blind.
"That sort of drew me toward this," Booher said.
After a decade in which employees with disabilities made up fewer than 1 percent of the federal workforce, President Barack Obama pledged in 2010 to make the federal government a "model employer" of people with disabilities. But hiring is behind the pace needed to meet the goal of 100,000 new workers to which he committed the nation.
The Government Accountability Office reported in May that the government had taken on 20,000 new employees with disabilities since Obama issued his executive order in 2010.
The GAO, the watchdog arm of Congress, said better planning is needed to meet the hiring goal.
An Office of Personnel Management review found that 29 of the 66 agencies that submitted hiring plans did not set numerical goals for new employees with disabilities, investigators wrote. Nine of the agencies did not identify a senior-level official responsible for their plans.
OPM itself, meanwhile, has not finished developing required training programs for the hiring managers and human resources personnel, the investigators found.
Veronica Villalobos, director of the Office of Diversity and Inclusion at OPM, said the agency agreed with the GAO's recommendations and is working to implement them.
"We are proud of the progress made to increase the number of individuals and veterans with disabilities in the federal workforce and are continuing to work hard to meet the goals of the executive order," she said in a statement to The Baltimore Sun.
'Set an example'
Nick Pezzarossi says he always wanted to work for the federal government.
"I have a family to support," said Pezzarossi, the father of an infant. "I like to work … for the good of people, and the federal government offers that."
Pezzarossi, a human resources specialist with a Rockville office of the National Institutes of Health, is deaf. He uses a video phone to make calls at work. When he needs an interpreter, he can make a request online.
The 37-year-old called the NIH "very progressive." But Pezzarossi, who is vice president of the group Deaf and Hard of Hearing in Government, says deaf people elsewhere in the federal government don't have access to interpreters or feel they can't grow in their careers.
"Some of them feel quite isolated," he said.
Pezzarossi and Booher hope the government will focus on putting people with disabilities in top management positions.
Booher says some employers don't know about all the resources that are available.
"They don't really understand how someone who's blind can come in and do work on a computer," he said.
Helena Berger, executive vice president and chief operating officer of the American Association of People with Disabilities, speaks of other obstacles. Employers might think a person with disabilities will call in sick more, or that it will be too costly to accommodate his or her needs.
She said those attitudes can be much tougher for workers to handle than physical challenges.
"Many times, those are the barriers that need to be broken down," she said.
Valerie Gill, director of the client services division of the NIH's human resources office, said the Bethesda-based agency has worked to train managers on how to reach out to people with disabilities.
For the past two years, NIH has held hiring events for people with disabilities and for military veterans. Another is scheduled for August.
"It's basically a talent pool that's largely untouched," she said.
Unemployment is a major concern for the disabled, Berger said.
The unemployment rate for people with disabilities was 13.3 percent last month, compared to 8.2 percent for the general population.
Berger said the federal government, as the largest employer in the U.S., "should set an example and be a benchmark" on hiring.
The proportion of federal workers with targeted disabilities — including deafness, paralysis, blindness and mental retardation — fell from 1.1 percent in 2000 to 0.88 percent in 2010, according to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The overall number of federal employees grew during the same period.
The GAO examined four federal agencies, including the Woodlawn-based Social Security Administration, to assess progress toward Obama's goal of 100,000 new hires.
Investigators reported that Social Security has shown commitment from top leadership on meeting the goal. The agency has set concrete goals, they said, and "accountability for results related to the executive order is included in the performance plan of the senior-level official responsible for implementing it."
Social Security spokeswoman Kia Green said the agency recruits nationally for people with disabilities, offers career counseling and maintains "a robust reasonable-accommodation program with centralized funding."
The agency developed a five-year plan for hiring and supporting employees with disabilities three years ago, Green said.
The Arc of Maryland, a statewide advocacy organization for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, plans to work with Social Security this fall on a career development program. The Arc also participates in a federal contracting program in which people with disabilities maintain the grounds at the agency's headquarters.
"There are so many different opportunities that they have," said Doug McQuade, the Arc's assistant executive director. "They have so many jobs with so many diverse skill sets."
But he said the application process itself can be an obstacle. Often, the first step to starting a career, whether with the government or in the private sector, is submitting an application electronically.
"We're not just someone looking for a job," he said. "We have a story. For someone to take the time to listen to that story and to know you makes all the difference. … [With] kiosks and websites, somehow you lose the story."
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