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Speeches & Remarks

Remarks of OPM Director John Berry

Perspectives on Employment of Persons with Disabilities Conference

December 8, 2010

Thank you, Naomi [Levin, Department of Labor], for the introduction. It's great to be here with all of you, with my friend Assistant Secretary of Labor Kathy Martinez, and my OPM team. I always talk about the great teams we have at OPM, whether it's the people doing hiring reform, telework, veterans employment, or our other tasks and initiatives. But we really do have a great team working on hiring more people with disabilities, so even though many of you already know them, I want to take a moment to acknowledge and thank them.

Christine Griffin, our Deputy Director, knows disability employment issues inside and out. She has been deeply involved in expanding employment opportunities throughout her career. John Benison, her Senior Advisor, also brings a wealth of knowledge and experience. He's been a leader in the Federal civil rights community for over a decade, implementing successful disability hiring and reasonable accommodation initiatives at several agencies. Now he gets to apply those skills government-wide.

Our quantitative goal is simple: hire more people with disabilities. Numbers count, and we'll be watching them closely.

But there's also a qualitative aspect to hiring more people with disabilities, and increasing all forms of diversity. It's a concept, rooted in American history, that what seems a weakness is often a wellspring of wisdom and strength. Strength from disability marked the career of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. It inspired him to work harder, to overcome, to be one of the greatest leaders in American history.

Disability makes many of us stronger by making other challenges smaller in comparison. It's no coincidence that leaders like Dan Inouye, Max Cleland, and Bob Dole rose to the U.S. Senate after sustaining severe and permanent wounds in battle. Living with a disability, you can gain the levelheadedness and persistence to meet the challenges of the civilian workplace.

But someone has to give you the chance.

That's why President Obama gathered leaders of the disability community at the White House on the 20th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. On that day, he announced his commitment to giving people with disabilities that chance to serve the people, or to serve them again. He enshrined that commitment in an Executive Order establishing an ambitious goal: the Federal government will hire 100,000 people with disabilities in the next five years.

The President made it clear in the EO that he wants regular reports to track progress and make sure this gets done. And let me tell you, Kareem Dale, his disability policy advisor in the White House, will make sure those reports get read and acted on.

From cabinet members to frontline hiring managers, everyone is now on notice: disability hiring is not just an OPM thing or a selective placement coordinator thing. It comes from the President. And now that he has issued the call, it's our time to shine.

Each of us is here today because we have an important role to play in realizing President's Obama's goal.

I believe in practicing what I preach, so I'm setting a goal today for OPM: people with severe disabilities will make up 3% of my agency's new hires. No more excuses. Christine and I are going to personally review these numbers every three months until we get there.

That's not all.

We're going to centralize funding for people-based accommodations as well, so I can personally assure that the funding is there.

We're going to train everyone involved in the hiring process on how to hire people with disabilities - not just HR staff. And we're going to do exit surveys. People with disabilities leave our workforce at three times the rate of others and I want to know why. I encourage every agency to consider these steps.

Our nation will only continue to succeed if we leave no talent pool idle and untapped - if everyone in the boat is rowing. And when I look at the unemployment rates of people with disabilities, especially targeted disabilities, I see a vast pool of rowers who want to row, we just have to give them oars. People who are unacceptably underutilized even though they are willing and able to work and there are jobs they can fill. Not just fill, but excel at.

Leaving them out is not good for them, and it's not good for us. We deprive our agencies of talent, and we deprive people living with disabilities of the sense of self worth they get from contributing to society.

This isn't just about what we as a nation can do for people with disabilities ??it's about what they can do for us. We have an enormous need for talent in the Federal government. It's difficult to overstate how much we need the best and the brightest to replace those who are retiring and meet new missions.

Think, just for a second, about some of the new challenges our elected leaders have given Federal workers in the last decade alone: stand up a large new agency to protect Americans from terrorism and other threats; support troops in two wars and other deployments around the world; help tens of millions more Americans get quality, affordable health insurance; build new oversight systems to prevent future financial crises. And of course, all these new missions are in addition to everything else we already do!

If America is to continue to grow and thrive in a world that's more competitive than ever before, we need a civil service that can meet these challenges. Yet our personnel system is broken. That's why President Obama's reforms are so urgent.

Let me be clear: disability hiring is a critical part of the comprehensive Obama Administration personnel policy reform agenda.

It's important to overall hiring reform because Schedule A can help agencies hire better candidates faster. We've set a target of 80 days to hire. Back in your agencies, each of you can remind colleagues that people with disabilities can be hired fast under Schedule A, helping your agency meet that 80-day goal.

Disability hiring is important to the Veterans Employment Initiative as well. We've had very promising early results in that initiative ??veterans hiring is up two percent ??but there's a lot more work to do.

Miraculously, medical science is saving many warriors who would have died of their injuries even a couple decades ago. Even though many of them come home with horrific injuries and lifelong disabilities, their passion for public service may even grow stronger. They still have valuable skills and training. Let's make reasonable accommodations to give them homes in the Federal workplace. It will pay dividends for decades as they grow and develop in civil service careers.

We're watching this closely - and you have my commitment that veterans with disabilities and with severe disabilities will continue to be a focus of that initiative, and they will not be lost in the shuffle.

I am always on the lookout for undervalued pools of talent, and I'm excited at our prospects for tapping into this one. Don't let anyone tell you that we shouldn't prioritize this; that budgets are too tight; or that there's somehow a contradiction between diversity and excellence. Nothing could be further from the truth. There's help on funding accommodations. Dinah Cohen will get you what you need for electronic accommodations. Don't let that be a barrier. For people-based, we're pushing centralization to bring down that barrier as well.

The conditions have never been better for a surge in disability hiring. Now is your time to seize the initiative.

Let me close with a few words about perhaps the most stigmatized form of disability ??the unseen. Post-traumatic stress disorder. Bipolar disorder. Traumatic Brain Injury. Depression.

Most of us know today about FDR's paralysis, but Abraham's Lincoln's struggle with depression is much less well-known. Commonly called "melancholy" in his day, it was documented as early as his twenties, and followed Lincoln for the rest of his life, according to many contemporary accounts.

One school of thought says depression wasn't an obstacle for Lincoln to overcome, but rather a driving force in his life. Author and journalist Joshua Shenk stated it in the title of his book, "Lincoln's Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness."

Shenk makes a powerful argument: as many artists drew inspiration from inner demons, so did Lincoln. He cultivated an "irrepressible desire" for accomplishment to stave off thoughts of suicide, and this led him to fight slavery.

He gained clarity and conviction because he was not weighted down by undue optimism. He drew creativity from an intense fear of failure.

While it is impossible to know for sure exactly how Lincoln's well-documented struggles shaped his life, it clearly didn't stop him from becoming perhaps our greatest President.

What didn't stop Lincoln from reuniting our country shouldn't stop anyone today from working as a defense civilian to continue protecting America.

What didn't stop Roosevelt from fighting poverty and disease as President shouldn't stop anyone from working at NIH to find cures for today's illnesses, both physical and mental.

What isn't stopping Dan Inouye in the Senate, Jim Langevin in the House, and Tammy Duckworth, Kathy Martinez, Kareem Dale, Chris Griffin and many others in the Executive Branch today, shouldn't stop anyone from serving their country now.

Their service enriches our nation, contributing to the work of government, and serving as a model for all of us. Because disability doesn't discriminate. Any of us could join this community in an instant.

While most able-bodied people would fear such a change, the example of these civil servants shows we need not. That you can live with a disability and make profound and lasting contributions to your neighbors, you community, and your country.

Spreading that message, that knowledge, that gospel is our goal. And when we do, we will hire more people with disabilities in government and come closer to building the model workforce of the 21st century.

Thank you, God bless you, and God bless the United States.

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