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October 5, 2008    DOL Home > Newsroom > Speeches & Remarks   

Speeches by Secretary Elaine L. Chao

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Remarks Prepared for Delivery by
U.S. Secretary of Labor Elaine L. Chao
Summit on Disability Employment Policy
Washington, D.C.
Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Thank you, Neil [Romano, Assistant Secretary for the Office of Disability Employment Policy] for that introduction.  And thank you for your leadership!

I’d also like to recognize Karen Czarnecki who so ably served as acting assistant secretary before Neil’s arrival.  And, thanks to the advocates, organizations, employers and others who worked so hard to bring this summit about.  I especially want to thank the entire Office of Disability Employment Policy team for the important work they do everyday on behalf of Americans with disabilities.  In particular, let me recognize Chris Button [ODEP Director of Workforce System Policy], whose work was instrumental to this summit.

Finally, let me thank the Office of the 21st Century Workforce for helping to produce this summit.

I hope everyone will take some time to visit the inspiring exhibit on disability history and Americans with disabilities at work.  The exhibit will be unveiled during tonight’s reception at the Smithsonian Institution’s Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture.  This exhibit is a first, and we hope it will contribute to a greater appreciation for the contributions to our society of Americans with disabilities.

And in another first, in June, the Bureau of Labor Statistics will begin collecting employment data on persons with disabilities as part of the monthly Current Population Survey and will begin publishing this data early next year Empowered with this new information, the Department hopes to get a better understanding of the labor market experience of Americans with disabilities.  And, of how to best serve Americans with disabilities who want to be active in the labor force.

You’ll soon be hearing from our assistant secretary on the Office of Disability Employment Policy’s plans for the future.  But this morning, let me share some milestones about the ground breaking efforts of the U.S. Department of Labor to eliminate barriers to employment for Americans with disabilities.    

On February 1, 2001, President George W. Bush committed the federal government to taking real, concrete steps to increase employment for Americans with disabilities when he announced the New Freedom Initiative.  And the U.S. Department of Labor was given a leading role in helping to identify new strategies to increase access to housing, job training and assistive technologies for Americans with disabilities.    

The Department’s Office of Disability Employment Policy provides national leadership to develop and promote policy to improve employment opportunities for people with disabilities.  And, it accomplishes this while meeting employers’ competitive workplace needs.  Through its partner, West Virginia University, the Department operates a very successful program called the Job Accommodation Network.  Employers hiring, or seeking to hire, people with disabilities call upon the JAN program to request one-on-one consultations on how to overcome barriers to hiring people with disabilities.  At no cost to the employer, JAN professionals examine all aspects of the workplace.  Then, they create an individually-crafted plan to meet the employment, retention, and productivity goals of both the employer and worker.  Over the past five years, the JAN program handled over 30,000 complex technical assistance cases involving multiple consultations. 

The JAN program also helps employers who need quick, basic information on how to make a workplace accommodation.  In 2007 alone, the JAN program responded to over 34,000 telephone and email inquiries pointing the way to products and service that could help accommodate workers with disabilities.  And over the five years ending in 2007, the JAN program website was accessed more than 12 million times.  As a result of a JAN program survey, employers tell us that our consultations have:

  • Helped employers retain qualified workers with disabilities;
  • Increased productivity for workers with disabilities; and
  • Eliminated the cost of training new workers with disabilities.

Another ground breaking program is the very successful Workforce Recruitment Program (WRP).  Through a partnership between the Departments of Labor and Defense, a database has been established with over 1,500 pre-screened college and university students with disabilities seeking summer or permanent employment.  Nearly 400 students each year obtain jobs through the recruitment program. 

And the Department continues to strengthen its Employer Assistance & Recruiting Network, or EARN.  This database is an important resource that continually develops and demonstrates the business case for hiring people with disabilities.  And there is real interest out there: today, over 10,000 employers, service providers, and job seekers are regularly accessing information making the case for hiring people with disabilities.

The EARN program also helps federal agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.  The federal government is an active recruiter of Americans with disabilities.  And the time is right to access these opportunities.  Over the next 10 years, 60 percent of the federal workforce will be eligible for retirement.  And more than one-third of employees in SES positions are expected to retire.  This upcoming wave of retirements presents a wonderful opportunity for advancement.

The Department also partners with organizations to share information with employers on the tools and arrangements that make employing people with disabilities easier.  Through partnerships with the Assistive Technology Industry Association, the U.S. Business Leadership Network and others, the Department is promoting universal design in the workplace.  This is a strategy for making environments, products, and services usable by the most diverse range of people possible.  The Department shares publications on universal design at workshops and exhibits, and in settings such as our partners’ annual conferences.   

The Department also helps design special workplace arrangements for people with significant or involved physical or mental disabilities.  It does this through our nationwide network of over 3,200 One-Stop Career Centers, which are part of the publicly-funded workforce system.  Workforce investment professionals approach employers to let them know there are people with disabilities who are especially good at specific tasks that their company can use.  But, because of the severity of their disability these candidates often cannot work eight-hour shifts or perform a broad spectrum of tasks.  So, the employer and the workforce investment team come up with a customized workplace arrangement for these workers. It’s a win-win situation: people with disabilities are getting jobs, and employers are finding that customized solutions increase productivity for the entire company. 

A centerpiece of the Department’s role in the New Freedom Initiative has always been education and outreach.  The demographic profile of our country is changing as many baby boomers retire from positions all across our economy.      

And so, a fundamental outreach tool I created to spread our message is the annual Secretary’s New Freedom Initiative Awards.  The NFI Awards recognize non-profits, small businesses, large employers, and individuals that have demonstrated exemplary and innovative efforts in furthering the employment opportunities for people with disabilities.  The NFI Awards challenge organizations and individuals to make the workplace more accessible through the use of assistive technologies and flexible workplace arrangements, such as telework.  The NFI Awards have become so popular that they’ve initiated a vigorous dialogue among employers, advocates, and the community on how to make the workplace more accessible to Americans with disabilities.

A number of past NFI Award winners are present today to share their expertise as leaders of this summit’s breakout sessions.  Thanks so much for your contributions!  The next NFI Awards ceremony will be held on Wednesday, October 8th here in Washington.  We hope to see many of you there!

I’m also very pleased with the work that the Department is doing to help returning injured and wounded service members.  The stories of heroes such as Dawn Halfaker, our luncheon speaker, are truly an inspiration and remind us of the debt of gratitude we owe to our men and women in uniform defending our freedom.  The Department also helps service member's spouses and caregivers get good jobs.  After all, they make sacrifices along with their loved ones in the service.  To date, the Department has helped nearly 7,000 wounded and injured service members and their families find the pathway to a new career.

The Department is now working closely with the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs and a number of other Federal partners on new ways to assist both returning wounded and injured service members, and employers.  These efforts will help us gain a better understanding of how to make the transition from military to the civilian workplace smoother and more effective.  We hope to make the results of our collaboration more public in the coming months.

Finally, let me note the remarkable job the Labor Department and its 22 federal agency partners have done with the website, which is managed by ODEP.  As you may know, this is a one-stop-shopping portal where Americans with disabilities can access comprehensive employment information.  So far, total visitors to the site have reached more than 7 million from 180 countries.  With your help, we are spreading the news that Americans with disabilities are a unique and untapped pool of talent, ready, willing and able to work. 

Our mission is to continue to promote a culture of inclusiveness in the best tradition of our nation.  Hiring Americans with disabilities is not only the right thing to do — it is the smart thing to do.  As our country becomes part of an increasingly worldwide economy, skilled workers are in greater demand than ever.  And the technological revolution of the last fifteen years has given us unprecedented ways to incorporate the talents of all members of our society into the workforce. 

I am confident that, working together, we can continue to ensure that the doors of opportunity remain wide open for Americans with disabilities so they become fully participating members of our society and our workforce.  

Thank you and have a great conference! 

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