Blind World Magazine

Lacking eyesight brings strength of vision.

December 30, 2005.
Federal Times, USA.

"It amuses me that when I ride the Metro, someone always grabs me when they see my cane and tries to pull me in one direction or another," he said.

While these people are well-meaning, Grizzard said he would prefer to simply be asked if he needs help while riding the subway.

"Most disabled people are going to ask for assistance if they need it," he said. "It's important for them to tell you what they need."

Grizzard said it all boils down to common courtesy.

"It all revolves around two things," he said, "common sense and thoughtfulness."

Grizzard, who lost his sight in his thirties to a genetic eye disease called retinitis pigmentosa, was chosen by the president as the first leader of the Office of Disability Employment Policy, a sub-Cabinet level policy agency within the Labor Department created shortly after Bush took office.

Prior to becoming the Labor Department's assistant secretary for disability employment policy, Grizzard served six years as commissioner for the Virginia Department for the Blind and Vision Impaired.

He said building a new agency has not been easy, but it has been rewarding.

While the Office of Disability Employment Policy works to provide opportunities for people with disabilities to land jobs both inside and outside of the federal government, Grizzard said, that's just half of the charge. Equally important, he said, is providing a larger pool of skilled workers for employers.

Q: What are the greatest challenges federal employees with disabilities face?

Grizzard: One of the great challenges is educating the supervisors and managers about what your accommodation needs are. Also important is educating them to the fact that they should be focusing on your abilities, not your disabilities. People with disabilities have far more abilities to do the job than they have disabilities. Once that's been accommodated for, whether it's the federal government, state and local, or private business, you're going to get an employee that at the end of the day is going to help you meet the goals of your organization.

Within the federal government itself, I think there is a high level of acceptance of people with disabilities. That's the impression I have. I believe there are 120,000 employees with disabilities within the federal government, and that speaks for itself that those individuals are doing a good job helping their respective agencies achieve their goals.

Q: What are some employment trends for people with disabilities?

Grizzard: That's an interesting question. The advancements in technology have changed the playing field for people with disabilities. It has allowed them to do jobs today that would have been more difficult - I won't say impossible - but certainly more difficult 10 or 15 years ago. If it's come that far in 2005 with the advancements that have been made in technology, then I look for a future in which technology will enable people with disabilities to do even more jobs even better in the future. We've just seen the tip of the iceberg.

I look for that day in the future where a person with a disability, that the disability is just an afterthought, that they are fully engaged in participating in a job with their fellow employees and getting the job done and that the disability is not even an issue.

Q: How does the Office of Disability Employment Policy fit into the president's New Freedom Initiative?

Grizzard: The president issued the executive order that created the New Freedom Initiative within a fortnight of his inauguration in 2001. He called on all federal departments to work in a synergistic way to provide opportunities for people with disabilities to receive rehabilitation, and to provide the transportation and technologies that would allow a person with disabilities to be a part of their community in total. One of the outcroppings of that was the charge to the Department of Labor to provide people with disabilities opportunities for employment. Employment gives us two things. One, a paycheck and two, it gives us a feeling of worth and identity which is so very important.

Q: Are there programs created by the Office of Disability Employment Policy that are becoming examples for other agencies to follow?

Grizzard: One that we are doing a great job implementing and are seeing a lot of benefits from is the Workforce Recruitment Program. Using other federal agencies to assist us, we recruit graduate students and graduating seniors with disabilities - the cream of the crop - and we offer them an opportunity for a three-month summer internship program in the federal government. Last year there were 350 individuals that participated. This year we anticipate about 2,000.

Here's why it's a good program. One, it gives these individuals an opportunity to learn the skills of work: being on time, how to get along with supervisors, how to work with a team. That's important because a lot of individuals with disabilities have not had that experience in their youth that others have, like working at the corner grocery store. Secondly, it allows them to develop a résumé and to network. Of course, it gives them another benefit, a paycheck.

In previous years, about 25 percent of these individuals have applied for full-time jobs with the agencies where they intern. The supervisors have seen their work, they know their work ethic, their skills and abilities, and they're hired.

Another program I'm proud of is the Web site, President Bush asked us to develop this as a clearinghouse for people with disabilities to go for information. It has a plethora of information on disability matters, with contributors such as the Social Security Administration and benefits information from Medicare and Medicaid services at the Health and Human Services Department. It even has emergency preparedness information for people with disabilities.

Since it came online in October 2002, it's received about 4.7 million hits from 180 countries. The average is about 3,000 hits a day. Currently there are 16 federal departments that participate actively in this site. We hope to increase that to three or four more in the near future.

The site won the [Web Content Managers Best Practice Peer Award] this year, meaning it was rated the No. 1 Web site in the federal government by managers.

Q: Are there still some corners of the federal government where people are reluctant to give those with disabilities a chance?

Grizzard: I don't think there are areas, like an agency or a department, where this is the case. System-wide within the federal government, I see an open-mindedness, a recognition of people with disabilities as being able to add quality to that department or that agency.

Now, are there some individuals who are reluctant? Yes. However, I think that is not insurmountable and every day it becomes less and less of an issue. But it would be ridiculous for me to sit here and tell you that of the 2 million federal employees that there aren't two or three that have a poor attitude, but that would be the far, far extreme.

Most agencies are very open, and they do it because it's the right thing to do, not because they are compelled to do it. And that's an important thing. I don't think people should be compelled to have people with disabilities. We want people with disabilities hired because the potential employer sees their work, their abilities, and what they can add to that agency or business. Just because someone uses a cane, a wheelchair or a guide dog doesn't mean they don't bring extreme intellectual abilities and organizational abilities. There are also many disabilities that aren't necessarily visible.

Another thing to keep in mind is that as we are an aging work force, one of the concomitants of aging is that we have health issues and disabilities that develop. As people age, sometimes we have to make some accommodations, and I think we will see more of that in the workplace as we continue to be a society that's aging with the baby boomers getting closer to retirement.

Q: What are some of your goals for the future?

Grizzard: I was just in a meeting where we were looking at statistics and evaluations of our projects, programs and grants. As we were looking at some of the results, I made the comment to the presenter that we're now beginning to feel that we've got our sea legs, so to speak. So we look for good things to come as we head into the future.

I see great strides being made in the employment of individuals with disabilities in the federal government. We at the Office of Disability Employment Policy are here to serve our fellow federal agencies to help them to expand their employee pool with good solid workers, and that's workers with disabilities. They can contact us at and we would be glad to assist them with their needs.

We're all in this boat together, and we just want to pull the same weight.

Aimee Curl

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