Deputy Secretary Christopher P. Lu manages the US Department of Labor’s (DOL) 17,000 employees who seek to expand work opportunities for all Americans. He co-edited the book, Triumphs and Tragedies of the Modern Congress: Case Studies in Legislative Leadership and spoke with ABILITY’s Chet Cooper and Lia Matirosyan at the recent CSUN conference in Northridge, CA, also known as the Annual International Technology and Persons with Disabilities Conference. DOL consultant Josh Christianson joined in to discuss a new DOL app that helps streamline the job application process.
Chet Cooper: Deputy Secretary, is this a new position for you?
Deputy Secretary Christopher Lu: I’ve been on the job since April 2014.
Cooper: Did you take over from Kathy Martinez?
Lu: No. There’s the secretary, the deputy secretary—which is me, the number two person—and then we have about 10 assistant secretaries, and Kathy was one of those. She was in charge of the Office of Disability and Employment Policy.
Cooper: Is there anybody in her place now?
Lu: We have an acting assistant secretary, a wonderful woman named Jennifer Sheehy.
Cooper: Oh, I know Jennifer!
Lu: She’s fantastic.
Cooper: So why is she acting? It’s not a bad profession, but—
Lu: It’s a Senate-confirmed job, and in this climate getting anybody confirmed is very challenging. Literally no one is getting confirmed at this point, so she’ll stay in the acting role, where she seems perfectly happy.
Cooper: After Jennifer’s installed, maybe we can get a Supreme Court justice nominated.
Lu: Believe me, I feel incredibly lucky! I got confirmed two years ago, before the door closed.
Cooper: But even then it was tough.
Lu: It was. But I spent a good chunk of my career working on Capitol Hill, so I did establish several relationships.
Cooper: On both sides of the aisle?
Lu: Yes. But at this point it’s not about the merits of any one person. It’s one of the things I think is most troubling about our political system right now. It’s become so divisive, and it shouldn’t be. The vast majority of issues we work on as a department aren’t partisan at all. Our employees have a variety of functions. I divide up our work in two ways: (1) We train people for jobs and help them find jobs. (2) We work to protect people. We obviously have OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration), and we’ve got the Wage and Hour Division (WHD). We enforce workplace laws, including some of the anti-discrimination laws that protect people with disabilities. We often think of the Department of Labor as the department of opportunity. Our job is to provide economic opportunity for people, and the best way you can do that is by giving them access to good, quality jobs, which allows people to have good, middle-class lives.
One of the reasons why I’m here is to ensure that everybody has the opportunity to succeed, whether it’s people with disabilities, veterans, women, disadvantaged young people… There are far too many people who have not shared in the broad-based prosperity that we’ve had in this country. When you look at people with disabilities, the unemployment rate is about double what it is for people without disabilities. But, even worse, I think the labor force participation of non-disabled people is 2/3, 60 percent, and with people with disabilities it’s about 18 percent or 20 percent. People aren’t even getting a chance to participate in the workforce. These are issues that we confront.
Martirosyan: That is so frustrating.
Lu: In the 21st century, it’s a global competition with other companies, and in this competition we need to feel the full pain, and we’re not feeling the full pain. There are a substantial number of people who are left on the sidelines, and a large percentage of them are people with disabilities. It’s important for me to come to conferences like this to show our commitment, but also, frankly, to learn. In this job I’ve certainly had an awareness of the challenges within this community, and now I have an increased awareness of those challenges, but I’m excited about how technology can help address a lot of those issues. In my CSUN talk, I laid out a lot about how technology is so ingrained in everyone’s life. It’s not only your work life, it’s your personal life. It allows you to engage with more people and more information than ever before. But if it’s not accessible, you’re being shut out of a huge part of what is in our workplace and in our society. So I’m excited to come here to learn, to try out all kinds of technology, and to see how we can better support these efforts.
Cooper: It’s really good that you’re here, especially for the Department of Labor to come out to this one event in particular. The hands-on experience really opens your eyes.
Lu: We have a lot that we can do. We’ve got grant money that we can give out to foster best practices on disability employment. We’ve got regulations we’ve put out that incentivize the hiring of people with disabilities. I think one of the best tools we have is our bully pulpit, coming to venues like this and saying, “We’re the federal government. We care about these issues. We want to support your efforts.” When we go around and try on technologies and people take photos of me trying the technology, that’s a good thing. A lot of this technology is not only great for people with disabilities, it’s great for people without disabilities. I’m excited about what this means for everyone.
Cooper: Have you seen any new technology?
Lu: I tried out Sesame, using the movement of my head to click on things. Can you imagine what this could mean for a multitasker? I can shift my eyes or move to one side and that moves a [computer] mouse. The amount by which it could increase my productivity! We were also talking about the Dragon technology (Dragon Speech Recognition Software) that allows you to transcribe words. That has huge implications for people with disabilities. If I ever do another a book, I’m just going to speak the whole thing and use Dragon to transcribe it.
Cooper: Some people lack finger dexterity. I often see people talk to their phones to transcribe emails.
Lu: And I think that’s a lot of what we need to do to commercialize some of this technology, and to show the implications for people without disabilities. I’m really intrigued by the driverless car, because I have been taught by Kathy Martinez that one of the greatest challenges for people with disabilities is transportation. If you could figure out a car that drives itself and can help people who are blind get to work, that would be phenomenal. But more important than that, the technology that goes into the driverless car can produce safety features for all cars, because it can evaluate the distance between cars and adjust your speed. If you put that into existing cars, it has the ability to reduce accidents, even if we’re driving those cars. I think that’s one of the keys here, to show how that technology can help everybody.
Martirosyan: And for multitaskers, can you imagine going to work with all this extra time?
Lu: If I’m using my Sesame while I’m in my driverless car, with my Dragon, talking, moving my head at the same time—
Cooper: —eating breakfast—
Lu: —eating breakfast, shaving, (laughter) it’d be pretty phenomenal.
Cooper: Showering, what the heck? (laughter) I think of that all the time, the benefits of having a driver, but if the car was the driver, it’s really—
Martirosyan: Those extra hours of the day that we’re always looking for.
Cooper: Yeah, we’re all overworked. Is this your first technology conference?
Lu: It’s my first CSUN. But it’s not going to be my last. This is a lot of fun.
Cooper: Did I read that your team is about to launch something?
Lu: TalentWorks. It’s a really exciting initiative. We were looking at expanding the recruitment and hiring of people with disabilities and realized that one of the greatest impediments is inaccessibility of online hiring. We did a survey and found that 56 percent of people with disabilities had found out about a job and applied for it by using a mobile device. But many of the features they were using were inaccessible to them. In that same survey, 46 percent of people with disabilities said that their last experience of applying for a job online was “difficult to impossible.” So we realized that technology provides a wonderful virtual tool to interview people, to assess them, to post jobs and to apply for them, but if those tools aren’t accessible, you’ve narrowed the pool of people you’re trying to attract. ...To read the full article, login or become a member --- it's free!