Challenged employee shares success story

  • Published
  • By Alauna Fizer
  • 81st Force Support Squadron
July 26, President Barack Obama signed an Executive Order to increase federal employment of individuals with disabilities. Approximately 54 million Americans are living with a disability, and the federal government has made it a priority to reduce employment discrimination against these individuals. October is also National Disability Employment Awareness Month, and events all across the country are occurring to celebrate this integral part of the federal work force.

Allow me to share my personal story. In 2002, I was a healthy 17-year-old college freshman living in Chicago. I entered DePaul University that year on a full-ride academic scholarship, with dreams of becoming an attorney someday.

Fast forward four years -- three weeks after my 21st birthday in March 2006, I was diagnosed with a presently incurable progressive neurological illness. There's a great deal of frustration, shame and difficulty that comes with being a disabled American, and believe me, I've experienced it all.

I picked myself up, pushed myself through graduate school and entered the Workforce Recruitment Program for students with disabilities. This internship program allows students with disabilities the chance to work within the federal government at no cost to the agency with their salaries subsidized by the Department of Labor for 90 days over the summer. If an agency decides to keep the intern, he or she may be offered temporary or permanent position. I interned at Keesler for roughly four months and was recently offered a position at this amazing installation as a human resources specialist in the manpower and personnel flight.

Programs are in place to assist individuals with disabilities such as the Schedule A hiring authority which allows qualified job seekers with certain medical restrictions the ability to simply submit their resume and a letter from a licensed medical professional or vocational rehabilitation center to a hiring authority for consideration. I was hired through this authority, and the flexibility and ease of using Schedule A can shorten the hiring process from months to a couple of weeks.

A misconception that many hiring managers have about individuals with disabilities is that it costs too much money to create reasonable accommodations for them. Not with the Computer/Electronics Accommodations Program. CAP provides free assistive technology and accommodations to employees with disabilities and wounded service members at no cost to the agency. I wrote this article using my assistive technology supplied by the CAP Program.

So why is it important to create opportunities for individuals with disabilities? Currently, the unemployment rate in the U.S. is roughly 9.4 percent. In contrast, the unemployment rate for individuals with disabilities is more than 64 percent. To give a stronger reference point, the unemployment rate during the Great Depression was 25 percent.

Recognizing this extremely high unemployment rate, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has established a goal to have at least 2 percent of the entire Defense Department work force as individuals with disabilities. How does the Air Force measure up to these mandates? Though the Air Force has some of the highest rates of employed individuals with disabilities, we can still do better. In the last two years, the Air Force has dropped from .8 percent to .6 percent of employees with disabilities.

If no one had taken a chance on me, I would never have had the opportunity to serve in a supportive capacity to our brave warfighters and their families. Take a moment this month to appreciate our wounded veterans, differently-abled employees and their caretakers.