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Revisiting the Rehabilitation Act

The revised law, signed in 2014, built upon the expanded, more inclusive definition of "disability" established by the ADA Amendments Act.

By Carol Glazer and Jesse Fryburg, National Organization on Disability

1973 was a momentous year in the United States. The Supreme Court overturned states' bans on abortion with Roe v. Wade. The Vietnam War ended. Secretariat became the first Triple Crown winner in 25 years. Homosexuality was removed as a disorder from the DSM-II.

Largely lost in the annals of 1973, however, is the poorly-named Rehabilitation Act, which – among other things – prevents the federal government and its contractors from discriminating against individuals with disabilities in hiring. The goal: put Americans with disabilities to work.

How did such a seemingly significant civil rights legislation become an historical footnote? It may not have been hair-raising like Secretariat, nor as controversial as Roe. But the bill had the potential to impact millions of people and should have created more than a few ripples on the horizon of social notice. Perhaps it has been overshadowed by the subsequent, more sweeping Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), but that doesn't tell the whole story.

At its core, the Rehab Act was a sprinkler where a firehose was needed: well-intentioned but lacking power. It proffered a narrow, subjective definition of "disability," and despite making disability a protected class, did not prescribe mechanisms for enforcing those protections. As a result, the Act has not meaningfully impacted employment rates for Americans with disabilities.

But the foundation of the bill was strong. So disability organizations – including the National Organization on Disability – worked with the Obama Administration to shore it up.

The revised law, signed in 2014, built upon the expanded, more inclusive definition of "disability" established by the ADA Amendments Act (2008). It instituted a workforce disability goal of 7% for all federal contractors, and compelled them to invite job applicants to voluntarily disclose their disabilities. Additionally, the law required contractors to show progress in meeting the disability hiring goals, translating the law's aspirations into actual action.

There remain challenges, however, foremost among which: the new rules have gone largely unenforced due to a lack of compliance audits. According to the Government Accountability Office, 85% of required federal contractors do not have affirmative action plans (the basis for the audits).

Enter an unlikely enforcer, stage left: The Trump Administration. Craig Leen, Acting Director of the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs (OFCCP), which enforces such regulations, recently announced that OFCCP is planning to conduct 500 "focused reviews" or audits of disability practices alone, in 2019, the largest effort of its type in recent memory. At long last, five years after the 503 rule change was signed, firms will be held accountable for living up to the letter and spirit of the law.

For generations, persons with disabilities have been an asset to American industry, and offered companies talent, creativity, and grit. They have helped companies tap the $500B+ disability consumer market and been drivers of innovation; from curb cuts in sidewalks to touch screens on iPhones.

If all of these carrots haven't compelled a closer look at candidates with disabilities, look out: the stick is coming.

The Conversation (2)
David Hoff11 Feb, 2019

While I'm glad to see the attention being brought to this issue, this article contains a number of factual errors. The changes to Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act (the part that covers federal contractors) discussed in this article did not occur as a result of the passage of the Workforce Innovation Act of 2014, which reauthorized the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. They actually occurred as a result of a change in Federal Regulations under the Obama Administration that were made final on September 24, 2013. Also, while I applaud any efforts by the Trump Administration to increase enforcement of Section 503, there was virtually no enforcement until the Obama Administration, which significantly stepped up enforcement early on, well prior to the strengthening of the regulations in 2013. Also, it is not correct that the GAO found that 85% of required federal contractors did not have an Affirmative Action Plan - instead 85% of contractors failed to submit their plan within the 30 day deadline - not acceptable but certainly not the same as not having a plan. Per the GAO, "according to OFCCP compliance evaluation data, in 2015, close to 85 percent of contractor establishments did not submit an AAP within 30 days of receiving a scheduling letter, as requested, and OFCCP officials said that it was not unusual for establishments to request an extension."

Beverly09 Feb, 2019

There have been a few cases I know about were/are ignored by the so-called DOJ Civil Rights office due to fake too many complaints. Seriously? The staff should be working on these cases. They weren't furloughed last year or the year before. Trump has the morals and personality that make God wanting to commit suicide. Trump is that evil.

Humana Recognized for Exemplary Disability Hiring and Employment Practices

Diversity is a business imperative at Humana, and success means recognizing and celebrating the unique characteristics, backgrounds and beliefs of our employees and tapping into that knowledge to inspire innovative and strategic thinking.

Originally Published by Humana.

Humana has been recognized by The National Organization on Disability (NOD) as one of the 2018 NOD Leading Disability Employers. The NOD Leading Disability Employer seal recognizes companies that demonstrate exemplary employment practices for people with disabilities.

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Let's Stop Cheating the Disabled

Sheltered workshops are vestiges of the past and should be reformed or abolished.

By Carol Glazer, President of the National Organization on Disability

Consider this: Businesses in regions with the lowest unemployment rates employ disproportionate numbers of workers with disabilities [1].

The implication? People with disabilities are more than capable, they're just not companies' first, second, or even third choice. But when employers need talent, they give new people a chance. And when given the chance, people with disabilities succeed.

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The ADA: 28 Years of Opportunity Unrealized

"While the Americans with Disabilities Act has helped close many gaps, employment is not one of them."

By Carol Glazer, President of the National Organization on Disability and Jesse Fryburg, Program Manager, National Organization on Disability

On July 26, 1990, the president of the United States looked into a television camera on the South Lawn of the White House and proclaimed that the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) "signals the end to the unjustified segregation and exclusion of persons with disabilities from the mainstream of American life." Twenty-eight years later, it has not.

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Invisible Disabilities the Subject of National Organization on Disability Corporate Leadership Council Meeting

Discussions about how employers can support their team members to bring their whole selves to work.


Last week, National Organization on Disability's (NOD) Corporate Leadership Council hosted the "Bringing Our Whole Selves to Work: Harnessing the Power of Difference by Uncovering Invisible Diversity Traits" event that brought together executives, managers, and employees from various corporations challenged the attendees to think about how people tend to leave a part of themselves at home when they come to work, and how difficult it might be for employees with 'invisible disabilities' to" come out" at work.

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Ignoring Mental Health In Your Workplace Can Affect Productivity And The Bottom Line

6 key takeaways from NOD's Fall Corporate Leadership Council Roundtable

Originally Published by National Organization on Disability.

On November 1st, the National Organization on Disability held our Corporate Leadership Council Fall Luncheon and Roundtable. Hosted at Sony's New York offices, the event centered on the topic of mental health in the workplace.

Members of our Board of Directors and executives from nearly 40 companies held a candid conversation, heard from business leaders, and participated in an insightful Q&A where successful strategies were discussed to accommodate and support employees with mental illness in the workplace.

"Mental illness is the single biggest cause of disability worldwide," said Craig Kramer, a panelist at the event and Chair of Johnson & Johnson's Global Campaign on Mental Health. "One out of four people will have a clinically diagnosable mental illness at some point in their lives," he continued. Another 20 to 25% of the population will be caregivers to loved ones with a mental illness.

The costs are staggering. "In the coming decades, mental illness will account for more than half of the economic burden of all chronic diseases, more than cancer, diabetes, and chronic respiratory diseases combined…. It's trillions of dollars," said Kramer.

From an employer's perspective, the need for a successful strategy to deal with mental illness in the workplace is clear. But what are the most effective ways to confront this challenge? Roundtable participants discussed a wide range of ideas and success stories aimed at de-stigmatizing mental health and incorporating the issue into wider conversations around talent, productivity, and inclusion.


  1. Be empathetic. "The most important workplace practice [with respect to mental health] is empathy," said NOD President Carol Glazer. Empathy is critical for normalizing conversations about mental health, but also for maximizing productivity. "A feeling of psychological safety is important," said Lori Golden, a panelist and Abilities Strategy Leader for Ernst & Young; and this sense of safety requires the empathy of colleagues to flourish.
  2. Tell stories. "Nothing is more activating of empathy than for people to share their powerful stories," said Dr. Ronald Copeland, NOD Board member and Senior Vice President of National Diversity and Inclusion Strategy and Policy and Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer for Kaiser Permanente. Copeland's organization partners with the renowned nonprofit, Story Corps, to capture the stories of Kaiser Permanente employees, and also provides a platform on the company intranet for employees to communicate in a safe space. Both Craig Kramer and Lori Golden also shared examples of how their companies provide opportunities to share their stories and "start the conversation, break the silence," as Kramer put it.
  3. Model from the top. Carol Glazer received a standing ovation at the luncheon for her account of her own experiences with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). This type of executive-level modeling sends a powerful message that a company is committed to improving mental health for all employees. Lori Golden shared how EY had experienced great success with a program where top-level managers host office-specific events and share stories of mental illness or addiction that they are personally connected to – either about their colleagues or loved ones or, in a surprisingly high number of instances, about themselves. Senior leadership setting the example conveys that this is a forum in which employees can feel comfortable sharing.
  4. Communicate peer-to-peer. "We all know that there's greater trust of our own peers than there is of the organization," said Lori Golden. So to build trust, EY "took it to the grass roots," creating formal opportunities for employees to have conversations about mental health and asking other ERGs to co-sponsor these events. Craig Kramer also noted that Johnson & Johnson had simply folded mental health issues into their global disability ERGs, eventually building the world's second-largest mental health ERG by piggy-backing on existing infrastructure and leveraging existing connections.
  5. Be flexible. Accommodating [the fact that people live busy, complex lives] gets you better buy-in…and keeps production pretty high," suggested Dr. Copeland. A representative from one Council company concurred, explaining how their company has recently instituted a new policy of paid time off for caregivers on top of federally-funded leave. "Being in a culture in which we measure what you produce and not whether you show up in person all day, every day, and where if you can't be there, you negotiate how the deliverables will get done and in what time frame…is immensely helpful to people who themselves have mental illness issues or addiction or are caring for those who do and may need some flexibility," summarized Lori Golden.
  6. Build a trustworthy Employee Action Plan. Many employees do not access or even trust their organization's internal resources. According to Craig Kramer, the percentage of calls placed to most company Employee Action Plans (EAPs) regarding mental health is "in the low single digits," while "if you look at your drug spend, you'll find that around 50% is [related to] mental health." The people answering those calls must be trained in mental health issues, and employees also need to be assured that EAPs are truly confidential.

While revealing and accommodating mental illness remains a massive challenge in the workplace and beyond, a number of successful strategies are emerging for tackling this challenge – many of them pioneered by companies in NOD's Corporate Leadership Council.

Five Questions with Dr. Ronald Copeland of Kaiser Permanente on Addressing Mental Health in the Workplace

Depression and other mental health conditions are a leading cause of workplace disability in the form of lost productivity because of how common they are–1 out of every 5 people are suffering from a mental health condition at any given time–and because they tend to occur when people are young.

Originally Published by National Organization on Disability.

Kaiser Permanente's focus on reducing mental health stigma for consumers and members also applies to its own employees. The National Organization on Disability caught up with Ron Copeland, MD, to understand how to best create a supportive and inclusive workplace for people who are experiencing a mental health condition.

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