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RespectAbility Submits Testimony to Committee Developing New National Autism Plan

Washington, D.C., December 3 – This past month, the Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee (IACC), a federal advisory committee dedicated to addressing policy issues impacting people on the autism spectrum, actively solicited public feedback to help develop a new 2021-2022 IACC Strategic Plan. In response, RespectAbility, a national, nonpartisan nonprofit organization, submitted testimony on how to implement best practices, advocate for greater inclusion and improve the standing of neurodiverse people in the workforce.

“I’m proud to serve on the Board of RespectAbility and support these extraordinarily helpful recommendations to enhance disability inclusion in the federal workforce. Simply put, the federal government needs to set a positive example as the country’s largest employer by adopting all the best practices that it tells the private sector to do through OFCCP and ODEP,” said Craig Lean, a board member of RespectAbility, a neurodiversity advocate, and former federal official.

Lean went on to add that: “The federal government should appoint a Chief Accessibility Officer of the United States, conduct annual self-audits of hiring, compensation, and promotions for individuals with disabilities, and develop neurodiversity and autism at work programs. Likewise, the federal government should commit to increased hiring of individuals with disabilities in all agencies, instead of leaving it up to the ad hoc discretion of individual agencies whether to do so. There is so much more that could be accomplished if the federal government would follow its own excellent advice to businesses.”

There are approximately 3.5 million Americans living on the autism spectrum and there are many more people who have yet to be diagnosed. Further, prevalence has been increasing over time and as of the 2020 school year there were approximately 717,000 students on the Autism spectrum in America’s K-12 system.

In order to make the workforce more inclusive, RespectAbility collects, summarizes, and publicizes ideas on key workforce solutions. To learn more about RespectAbility’s advocacy work, please visit our Policy website.

RespectAbility’s full testimony is presented online and below: 

To: Members, Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee (IACC)
From: Staff, Fellows and Board members, RespectAbility
Re: Request for Public Comments – 2021-2022 IACC Strategic Plan

Dear Chair Gordon, M.D., Ph.D., and other IACC,

First of all, we thank each one of you for your dedication, service, and work advancing neurodiversity issues, supporting the independence of people on the Autism spectrum, and developing the new IACC Strategic Plan.

At this present time, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to play out and the economy evolves due to new pressures, intentional actions from public sector, private sector and non-profit leaders is needed. More important than that, people with lived disability experience need to be heard and valued. By soliciting input on your strategic plan, you are creating the opportunity to do exactly that.

There are approximately 3.5 million Americans living on the autism spectrum and there are probably many more people who have yet to be diagnosed. Further, prevalence has been increasing over time and as of the 2020 school year there were approximately 717,000 students on the Autism spectrum in America’s K-12 system.

As a national disability inclusion organization, RespectAbility fights stigmas and advances opportunities so all people with disabilities can fully participate in every aspect of community. Our work is particularly focused on employment solutions and as such our comments on your strategic plan are focused on employment related issues captured under Question 6: How Can We Meet the Needs of People with ASD as They Progress into and through Adulthood? and Question 7: How Do We Continue to Build, Expand, and Enhance the Infrastructure System to Meet the Needs of the ASD Community?

Many of our ideas are focused on actions that can be taken by the federal government and its constituent agencies. We do this because we believe that purposeful action in the federal space to act as a model for private sector adoption of neurodiversity best practices. We thank you for this opportunity and we look forward to working with you in the years ahead.

Respectfully,

Ollegario “Ollie” Cantos VII, Chair, RespectAbility
Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, President, RespectAbility
Matan Koch, Vice President, Workforce, Leadership, and Faith Programs
Philip Kahn-Pauli, Policy and Practices Director
Nelly Nieblas, Manager of Policy, Advocacy and Engagement

Support the Appointment of a Chief Accessibility Officer of the United States

Over the past several years, leadership at the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs (OFCCP) worked with OFCCP and ODEP to put together a list of best practices for Section 503 compliance by federal contractors. OFCCP continues to support those best practices, which are on their website (www.dol.gov/agencies/ofccp/compliance-assistance/outreach/resources/section-503-vevraa/503). One of those best practices is appointment of a Chief Accessibility Officer who reports to the CEO. This helps ensure the contractor prioritizes disability inclusion and accessibility. It would be amazing if the White House appointed a Chief Accessibility Officer of the United States. This would truly be leading by example and would make a tremendous impact. This official could ensure all departments and agencies are prioritizing disability inclusion and accessibility across the United States government. Each department and agency would provide a monthly report of their progress. There could also be a council of representatives from the major enforcement and disability inclusion agencies (such as EEOC, DOL/OFCCP, DOL/ODEP, DOJ/Civil Rights, OPM, NCD, USCCR, and others) that would be led by the Chief Accessibility Officer. In reviewing the experiences of thought leaders and subject matter experts who have worked in government service, we cannot emphasize enough how helpful it would be to have a lead official like this in the White House coordinating accessibility and disability inclusion in the federal workforce and among federal enforcement agencies. 

Sustain a More Consistent and Extensive use of Schedule A Hiring Authority in the Federal Government

Schedule A hiring authority is an excellent way to increase hiring of individuals with disabilities in the federal workforce (www.opm.gov/policy-data-oversight/disability-employment/hiring/#url=Schedule-A-Hiring-Authority). The U.S. Department of Labor should coordinate with the U.S. Office of Personnel Management to have every federal department and agency prepare a plan as to how they will seek to utilize Schedule A hiring authority to increase hiring of individuals with disabilities. The current approach is too ad hoc in my opinion, with some departments and agencies using the authority from time to time, and some not using the authority. OPM should strongly encourage and make it easier to use Schedule A hiring authority. It would also be tremendously beneficial to see the federal government develop comprehensive disability inclusion programs, including neurodiversity and autism at work programs, and lead by example in this area. Each department and agency should have to prepare a report showing the actions they are taking to ensure full inclusion of individuals with disabilities in all aspects of employment. 

As an outside organization who has worked extensively with government partners over the past decade, we can speak from experience that both OFCCP and ODEP have done great work encouraging companies to adopt many Section 503 best practices available here: www.dol.gov/agencies/ofccp/compliance-assistance/outreach/resources/section-503-vevraa/503. It would be wonderful if the federal government would fully implement all of these best practices and set the example. In my opinion, there is still much work for the federal government to do on a number of them, including disability inclusion programs as mentioned above. 

Promotion of Autism at Work and Neurodiversity at Work Programs

The federal government should strongly promote every federal contractor in the United States having an autism at work and neurodiversity at work program. This effort should also include companies and organizations that are not federal contractors. In my experience as the former OFCCP Director, many contractors have general section 503 compliance programs, but do not sufficiently include a focus on non-apparent disabilities, including cognitive, intellectual, developmental, and psychiatric disabilities. This needs to be a much larger focus of compliance efforts. Indeed, having neurodiversity at work and autism at work programs should be viewed as a central component of sufficient outreach and recruitment under Section 503. If companies have inclusive and welcoming environments, and if this is evident in everything the company does (including through disability inclusion and hiring programs), it is more likely that individuals with non-apparent disabilities will self-identify as having a disability and also seek any reasonable accommodations that will help them in their work (reasonable accommodations are not only required by law, they also increase productivity and result in more inclusive work environments as well). 

Indeed, this approach will build a more inclusive work environment benefitting all employees with disabilities, as well as the entire workforce (as it is well-established that more inclusive work environments are happier and more productive ones for all employees).

The best contractors (and best companies generally) have comprehensive disability inclusion and hiring programs, including autism at work and neurodiversity at work programs. OFCCP and ODEP saw this in the Excellence in Disability Inclusion (EDI) Awards, with the two winners having comprehensive disability inclusion programs. It’s important to continue and expand the EDI Awards.

Brand name companies such as JP Morgan Chase, Coca-Cola, Ernst & Young, IBM, Walgreens, Starbucks, CVS and Microsoft know that workers with disabilities improve the bottom line and add value to the workforce. In recent years, many of those organizations have launched a number of Autism at Work programs. Tech companies have rapidly expanded neurodiversity programs, and it is great that tech is taking the lead. Nevertheless, it is really critical that Autism at Work programs exist in other industries and sectors of the economy as well, and that such programs are inclusive of employees on all parts of the autism spectrum. Individuals on the autism spectrum have diverse interests and will want to pursue many different fields, not only tech jobs.

Audit pay, promotion, and hiring data based on disability status

Recent experience working through the implementation of Section 503 regulations shows that the most effective step that could be taken to address disability discrimination and intersectional discrimination is to require federal contractors to collect and analyze systemic compensation, promotion, and hiring data based on disability status (comparing how contractors treat employees and applicants with disabilities to applicants and employees without disabilities to determine if systemic disability discrimination is occurring). This information could then be provided to the agency in every audit, similar to how such information is provided based on race and gender. OFCCP has made a huge impact in identifying and remedying discrimination based on race and gender as can be seen in this table available on OFCCP’s website: https://www.dol.gov/sites/dolgov/files/ofccp/BTN/sheets/MonetaryReliefQ12021.xlsx

As the table indicates, OFCCP has provided financial remedies to over 150,000 class members from FY16-FY20 that remedy race and gender discrimination in employment. During the same time in contrast, OFCCP has provided financial remedies to only 14 class members based on disability discrimination in employment. Our organizational understanding is this extraordinarily large disparity has existed across administrations and throughout the agency’s history of conducting systemic reviews. The reason for this disparity is that the agency requires federal contractors to collect detailed information as to compensation, promotions, and hiring based on race and gender, but does not do so based on disability status. Thus, when the agency conducts an audit, it can run regressions to look for race and gender discrimination but cannot do so for disability status. Past leaders at OFCCP sought to reform and improve OFCCP’s focus on disability discrimination and intersectional discrimination. These efforts should be built on.

From our organizational perspective, the most important reform the agency could take would be to collect and analyze compensation, promotion, and hiring information based on disability status, and would look at this data in every audit. This would make a major impact for disability inclusion and accessibility in the United States.

This would also facilitate the agency’s focus on identifying and eliminating intersectional discrimination, as then the agency could assess hiring, promotions, and compensation based on the intersection of disability status and race and gender. The agency is already looking at intersectional discrimination based on race and gender. Now the agency could also add disability status to this intersectional approach.

Support Continued Favorable Guidance on Telework across all aspects of the Federal and Federal Contractor Workforce

The past two years have been extremely hard on Americans with disabilities, especially those with intersectional identities. The COVID-19 pandemic has grown the disability community in substantive ways, from those with “long” COVID to people with new mental health conditions. There are more Americans with disabilities than ever before. However, it is worth focusing on where points of optimism can be found. Indeed, telework revolution has been a pandemic “silver lining” for thousands of workers with disabilities. While during the early stages of the pandemic more than 1 million workers with disabilities lost their jobs, now the labor force participation rate for working-age people with disabilities is higher than ever before. Further, the expanded use of Zoom, Teams, Skype and other remote work platforms have opened professional pathways for workers previously denied remote work as a reasonable accommodation.  

There is a legitimate concern that many of the accessibility gains over the past year might recede as return to office plans move forward in the public and private sector workspace. As such, our team feels that it is worth echoing the policy recommendation recently made by the National Council on Disability (NCD). In October, NCD released 2021 Progress Report: The Impact of COVID-19 on People with Disabilities, a thorough document looking at the healthcare, employment, educational and wellbeing impacts of the pandemic on the disability community. Among their recommendations was a specific policy idea directed to the Office of Personnel Management (OPM). NCD recommended that OPM capitalize on the gains of the past year by maintaining “maximum telework flexibility for all federal agencies on a permanent basis and ensure that federal employees with disabilities receive necessary, reasonable accommodations in their technology while working remotely and retain flexibility to work from their designated federal office as needed or desired.” This is a prudent, valuable and important recommendation that deserves to be echoed wherever possible. The federal government, which has long been a model employer for workers with disabilities, must remain a model for private sector employers to follow. 

Expand and Evolve Interview Alternates to Give Neurodiverse Workers a Fair Chance at Being Considered for Employment

The telework revolution and the pandemic have completely transformed how millions of Americans go to work. It has also transformed how employers, organizations, and agencies recruit, hire, and onboard talented employees. In these unprecedented times, it is critical that the federal government embrace emerging best practices and innovative approaches developed in the private sector. Some of the most important innovations surround the interview process itself. As the neurodiversity movement began to gain traction in the disability employment space over the past several years, new attitudes, approaches and accommodations around interviews were being pioneered. Many of those approaches are now common practices among private sector leaders like EYSAP, and Microsoft. Providing questions in advance to ensure adequate processing time, offering jobseekers a chance to demonstrate practical skills rather than verbal communication, and extended familiarization efforts have all proven valuable pathways for companies to onboard neurodiverse talent. However, in the recruitment space across federal agencies, the interview remains the definitional standard by which a candidate is or is not chosen. As part of our recommendation about Autism hiring best practices at each federal agency, RespectAbility also believes that hiring managers should receive training on alternative, neurodiverse friendly alternatives for conducting the interview process. There is an emerging body of knowledge on how to do that and we have included a few resources below:  

As an organization that advocates on behalf of job seekers with disabilities and their families, we believe that collecting the best ideas, emerging practices and innovative policies is critical to ensuring that Americans with and without disabilities have equal access to good jobs. Without such ideas communities and policymakers cannot direct appropriate resources to the places that need them most, particularly in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. If you have any questions or would like to discuss these matters further, our team stands ready to help, however we can.

Thank you for considering our ideas. We look forward to a world where every aspect of our society, every company strongly values neurodiversity and has comprehensive autism programs.

These comments were prepared by RespectAbility’s Apprentices, Staff, and Board Members. Special credit is due to current Apprentices Shereen Ali, Roy Payan, and Tammie Stevens who have been active contributors to our organization’s work on policy advocacy, civic engagement and advancing disability inclusion. They represent future leaders who will have a substantial impact.

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