Monday, August 23, 2010

Federal OPM Dept. recruits deaf employees

From The Federal Eye column in The Washington Post:

An e-mail forwarded to The Federal Eye this week demonstrates the lengths to which some federal workers are willing to go to recruit and retain qualified colleagues who also happen to be disabled.

An Office of Personnel Management employee attending American University sent an e-mail to fellow students seeking anyone with sign language skills.

"We are currently seeking a volunteer sign language interpreter for a few hours or days a week," the e-mail said. "The person will be needed to provide valuable assistance to one of our newest talented hires. The primary duty will be translating spoken language and sign language. Your support in this effort is greatly appreciated."

The new "talented" hire is a student intern from Gallaudet University who is deaf, OPM said. She joined the agency's employee services division this summer and is being trained as a staffing specialist -- essentially a clerical position. She will continue as a part-time intern this fall, according to OPM Deputy Director Christine Griffin.

But why would OPM need to recruit an unpaid volunteer sign language interpreter to help the intern -- why couldn't OPM just hire someone? Should OPM hire deaf workers who can't communicate easily with her colleagues, and then pay the extra expense to accommodate her disability?

Yes, absolutely, said Griffin. OPM does it, as do other agencies. (And for the record, The Eye in no way objects.)

"We hire sign language interpreters on contract," Griffin said Thursday. "We hire interpreters for people as an accommodation when we're having meetings and something more complex."

But the intern's coworkers want to learn some basic sign language so they can more easily communicate with her and make her feel more comfortable around the office, Griffin said. The volunteer interpreters -- if they find any (they haven't yet) -- will lead brown bag lunches and training sessions with workers eager to learn basic sign language, Griffin said. (Anyone interested and capable should contact OPM's Mike Mahoney.)

Just over 5 percent of federal employees are disabled and less than 1 percent are people with targeted disabilities -- defined as deafness, blindness, mental retardation, dwarfism and paraplegia, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The employment rate for disabled Americans is five percent lower than people without disabilities, said White House Disability Adviser Kareem Dale.

"There's been progress," Dale said in an interview last month. "There are private-sector companies doing great things, whether it's with employment or technology, but we need to do more."

It's good to see at least some federal workers doing a bit more. They're demonstrating through their actions that can and will hire talented people with disabilities and make accommodations to keep them. Let's hope other parts of the government follow suit.