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August 9, 2013
By Cheryl Pellerin
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Aug. 9, 2013 – One victim of defense budget cuts this fiscal year and into uncertain times ahead in 2014 is a model program cosponsored by the departments of Defense and Labor to recruit disabled college students and recent graduates into the workforce.

DOD’s Office of Diversity Management and Equal Opportunity, or ODMEO, facilitates and supports the placement of more than 450 Workforce Recruitment Program participants throughout DOD every year.

At least until this year, Stephen King, director of disability programs for the ODMEO, said today during an interview here with the Pentagon Channel and American Forces Press Service.

“We’re quite proud of this program at the Department of Defense and we’ve had very aggressive growth goals for the program for the last four years or so. And we’ve met all of our growth goals until this year,” he said.

Automatic defense spending cuts that are the result of language in the Budget Control Act of 2011 and six unpaid furlough days for DOD civilian workers have caused some challenges for many defense programs, King added, including the WRP.

“Although we take our responsibility to be a model employer of people with disabilities seriously, we also have to keep in mind how sequestration is going to impact our current DOD family,” the director explained.

The original effort to employ people with disabilities began more than 30 years ago in the Department of the Navy and then expanded as the Workforce Recruitment Program, or WRP, in 1995, he said. Since the expansion, more than 6,000 students and recent graduates have received temporary and permanent jobs through the WRP.

In July 2010, President Barack Obama signed Executive Order 13548 to increase federal employment of people with disabilities.

In response to the order, the Office of Personnel Management released model strategies to help agencies meet their obligations, the director said. OPM highlighted WRP as a model program to attract young people with disabilities to federal service.

The Department of Defense employs about 52,000 individuals with disabilities, King said, defining them as current employees who have elected to identify themselves as an individual with a disability using the Office of Personnel Management’s standard form 256, the self-identification disability form.

DOD also employs more than 60,000 veterans who have a 30 percent or greater disability rating, he said.

“You may be wondering how we can have 52,000 individuals with disabilities employed at the Department of Defense when we know that we also have over 60,000 veterans with a 30 percent or greater disability rating on our rolls. That is because they are on separate reporting systems,” King explained.

Veterans who have a disability rating of 30 percent or greater may use that rating to increase the likelihood that they will get a position in federal service -- called a veterans’ preference, he said.

“You can indeed be a veteran who has identified as one who has a 30 percent or greater disability rating to come on board with a preference,” the director said, “and then elect not to disclose [the disability] on the Office of Personnel Management form 256, self-identification disability form, so there is a discrepancy in this.”

One program participant is a management analyst who works for the Department of the Navy’s Customer Service Division at the Pentagon.

Anne Ng is legally blind and enthusiastic about the program. She has master’s degrees in Chinese history and library information science from San Jose State University in California. She moved to Washington in June 2012.

From the WRP program, Ng said she’s has gotten interesting and challenging employment options.

“I do take every opportunity I can to tell people I came from this program,” she said. “And then if I happen to come across other handicapped students … if they don’t know about WRP I tell them, get yourself on it.”

Ng’s boss is Rodman Sansone, director of the Customer Service Division in the Department of the Navy. He knew nothing about the WRP before working with Anne Ng.

“In simple terms, Anne is a rock star,” he said. “She was hired through the program that hires people with disabilities and Anne, disability or not … is the most competent person that you would ever want to have on your staff.”

Sansone added, “When you look at Anne, you don’t look at a disability, you look at how competent and what a great person she is. It really opens your eyes. You say, wow, this program is a huge success. If it’s hiring people like Anne, I’ll take 100 Annes.”

King said DOD has central funding in place to support placement of hundreds of WRP participants in DOD components worldwide each year. But due to the uncertainty of sequestration and its impact on DOD and its employees, the Office of the Secretary of Defense decided to freeze funding in January.

“The action was necessary to lessen the impact of sequestration on our existing personnel and their families,” the director said.

“Although we do not yet know if the WRP will be impacted in the 2014 hiring season, which begins in December, we remain committed to the program and to becoming a model employer of individuals with disabilities,” he added.

King said his office has recommended to DOD components that if they’re hiring at all to remember that DOD has committed to hiring more people with disabilities than ever and to try to do their fair share in this area, “like I think our nation expects us to as the Department of Defense.”