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NORFOLK, Va. (NNS) — October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month and the theme for 2018 is “America’s Workforce: Empowering All.”

National Disability Employment Awareness Month is observed each and celebrates the contributions of workers with disabilities and educates about the value of a workforce inclusive of their skills and talents.

According to the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendment Act of 2008, a disability is a physical or mental impairment (psychiatric disability) that substantially limits one or more of the major life activities of such individual.

Some of the recognized disabilities which impact federal employees include aging, amputation, anxiety disorder, back impairment, blindness, cancer, chronic pain, deafness, Graves’ disease, food allergy, migraines, multiple sclerosis, migraines and vertigo, according to the Job Accommodation Network web site.

“If you're an individual with a disability, you can apply and compete for any job for which you are eligible and meet the qualifications, but you also may be eligible for a special hiring authority,” according to Emily Cook, of Military Sealift Command’s Equal Employment Opportunity Team. “To find Federal jobs for which you can apply visit www.usajobs.gov.”

Cook emphasized that it is important as a federal employee to identify oneself as a disabled employee.

“The Standard Form (SF 256) form is required when using Schedule A to appoint people with disabilities non-competitively to Federal jobs to identify, for data collection purposes only, the individual's particular disability,” said Cook. “Also, current Federal employees may use this form at any time during their employment to self-identify as having a disability.”

“Agencies use SF-256 to resurvey their workforce to determine how many people with disabilities are on board. Any information that is captured on this form is Privacy Act protected,” added Cook. “This form is used to capture data on the disability demographics of Federal agencies so that such agencies may conduct analysis to determine how well or poorly they are achieving their disability hiring goals. SF-256 defines disability, targeted disability, and lists the various conditions that are considered disabilities or targeted disabilities. OPM recently updated this form to better reflect current disability language.”

“Targeted disabilities include the most severe disabilities such as blindness, deafness, partial and full paralysis, missing extremities, dwarfism, epilepsy, intellectual disabilities, and psychiatric disabilities,” according to Cook. “Individuals with these disabilities typically have the greatest difficulty finding employment. As a matter of policy, the federal government has a special emphasis on recruiting, hiring, and retaining people with targeted disabilities.”

According to Cook, MSC employees who are impacted by a disability have the option of requesting a ‘reasonable accommodation’ thus enabling them with a productive working environment.

“A Reasonable accommodation is modifications or adjustments to the work environment, or to the manner or circumstances under which the position held or desired is customarily performed, that enable a qualified individual with a disability to perform the essential functions of that position,” according to Cook. “An applicant or employee may request a reasonable accommodation at any time, orally or in writing. In addition, accommodations are made for employees to insure that they have full access to the benefits and privileges of employment.”

A request for a reasonable accommodation occurs when an employee or their representative makes the agency aware that the employee needs an adjustment or change at work for a reason related to a medical condition.

“When requesting an accommodation, an individual may use ‘plain English’ and need not mention the Americans with Disabilities Act, Rehabilitation Act or use the phrase ‘reasonable accommodation’," said Cook. “A verbal request is sufficient to place the agency on notice to begin the reasonable accommodation process.”

The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 requires federal employers to provide reasonable accommodations to persons with disabilities when needed, unless to do so would cause undue hardship.

“Some examples which could warrant a ‘reasonable accommodation’ request include an employee having trouble getting to work at my scheduled starting time because of medical treatments they are undergoing,” according to Cook. “Or perhaps an employee requires time off to receive treatment for a back problem. Another example could be an employee's spouse phones the employee's supervisor to inform her that the employee had a medical emergency due to multiple sclerosis, needed to be hospitalized and requires time off.”

Processing an employee’s ‘reasonable request’ can be a sensitive subject and is at times difficult for supervisors.

“Supervisors and managers should initially clarify that the employee is requesting a reasonable accommodation,” said Cook. “If the employee says no, the agency has met its obligation. If the employee says yes, supervisors and managers must engage in a conversation with the employee to make an informed decision about the request.”

“If the individual's disability is not obvious, the supervisor or manager may need to ask questions concerning the nature of the disability and any functional limitations in order to identify an effective accommodation,” added Cook. “Supervisors and managers must seek assistance from the servicing Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) or Human Resources (HR) offices in processing the request.”

Cook provided suggestions for those seeking more information about employees with disabilities.

“The Job Accommodation Network (JAN) is the leading source of information on workplace accommodations and disability employment issues,” according to Cook. “This free confidential service is beneficial to all federal, state, and local government employers and employees. The Job Accommodation Network can be found at https://askjan.org/.”

“The Computer/Electronics Accommodation Program (CAP) provides assistive technology and support services to individuals with disabilities and wounded, ill and injured Service members,” added Cook. “These include those who are blind, have low vision, deaf, hard of hearing or have a dexterity, communication, cognitive, or learning disability. CAP increases access to information and works to remove barriers to employment opportunities by eliminating the costs of assistive technology and accommodation solutions.”

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