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How States Are Helping People With Disabilities Break Into Government Jobs

Some are changing their applications. Others are instituting "tryouts."

Blind person using computer with braille computer display and a computer keyboard
Massachusetts has created an account to help agencies fund needed accommodations for disabled employees -- like technologies that help the visually impaired use computers.
Only 36 percent of Americans with disabilities have a job. Governors want to increase that number, and many have started by making it easier for disabled people to get jobs in the public sector.

“We want private businesses to employ people with disabilities, and state government has to model that,” says Bambi Polotzola, executive director of the Louisiana Governor’s Office of Disability Affairs. 

Polotzola is the mother of a high school student with autism and is well aware of the employment barriers that people with disabilities face. For instance, they may have trouble competing on timed civil service tests.  

“Employers are concerned and unsure of the kinds of accommodations an employee needs,” says Polotzola. “They are concerned about asking questions they’re not supposed to ask, and because of those fears, they avoid the issue.” 

But states across the country are trying to break down those barriers. Massachusetts has created an account to help agencies fund needed accommodations for disabled employees -- like technologies that help the hearing or visually impaired use computers or telephones. Maryland adjusted its hiring system by adding five points to the test scores for job applicants with disabilities. And in March, Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards signed an executive order to create new internships and short-term employment opportunities for disabled people and to increase training for human resources managers in recruiting and retaining people with disabilities. 

In a 2017 survey of the public and private sector by RespectAbility, a national organization that advocates for the disabled, Louisiana ranked 44th in the employment of people with disabilities. The state has set a goal of having 7 percent of the state government workforce be composed of people with disabilities.

But knowing whether the state has achieved that goal is tricky. 

Not all disabilities are visibly noticeable, and federal law bars employers from asking employees if they have one. Other federal laws restrict the medical information that can be shared with employers. Even if employees self-disclose any disability they may have, employers are sometimes nervous to discuss it out of fear that they may be breaking federal law, says Philip Kahn-Pauli, policy and practice director for RespectAbility.

Of 70,000 Louisiana government employees who filled out employment forms when they were first hired, Polotzola says only 70 self-disclosed any kind of disability. Considering almost 20 percent of the population has a disability, she believes that number wildly understates the reality.

“Many people worry that if they disclose, it will have a negative impact on their ability to get a job or their ability to move up or get more responsibility,” says Ron Honberg, senior policy adviser at the National Alliance on Mental Illness. 

To get better data, while respecting privacy laws, Louisiana is launching an anonymous employee survey that will inquire about disabilities.

In Vermont, the state has instituted trial periods of employment as a way to employ more disabled people in the public sector and to alleviate employers’ concerns.

The state works with career centers at Vermont colleges and utilizes business account managers, who act as intermediaries between hiring managers and applicants to match them with jobs they are qualified for and able to do. 

“We can hire people relatively quickly. The person gains experience, and if they do well, they have a good opportunity to get a permanent position,” says Beth Fastiggi, commissioner of the Vermont Department of Human Resources.

The state first launched a program like this for the private sector in 2009. Since then, the number of participating businesses has grown tenfold.

“Since this was so successful in the private sector, we decided to see how it would work within state government,” says Fastiggi.

In Minnesota, the state similarly provides a pre-probationary job tryout for applicants with disabilities. It can last up to 700 hours, with pay and health benefits provided, and if the manager feels that the person has demonstrated proficiency, he or she is then moved into regular probationary status. 

“It allows individuals with disabilities to demonstrate their qualifications, and it gives hiring managers the opportunity to see how effective people can be,” says Myron Frans, commissioner of the Minnesota Office of Management and Budget.

It also helps managers see what workplace adjustments may be needed. For instance, a man with autism was recently hired as a lawyer for the state. During the trial period of his employment, he had difficulty communicating well in group settings. So once he became a full-time employee, an emphasis was put on one-on-one ways of reporting to supervisors. 

According to Gov. Mark Dayton’s State of the State address this year, the proportion of state government employees with disabilities has grown by 40 percent since 2015 -- from 4.7 percent of the overall state workforce to 6.9 percent.

But for a program like Minnesota’s to work, it’s important to focus not just on hiring but also on retaining employees with disabilities. 

“We’re doing much more training [focused on] a respectful workplace so that you can get employees comfortable working with different kinds of people,” says Frans. 

Public-sector efforts to increase the diversity of the workforce are not just altruistic. In April, the national unemployment rate dipped to 3.9 percent. The workforce is aging. Young people appear to be shying away from government jobs.

“From a global perspective, we’re all competing for talent, and the talent pool is getting smaller and smaller,” says Frans. “We need to be more effective in reaching out to all communities in our state. We have to be smarter and more inclusive." 

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Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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