JENNIFER SHEEHY — Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor

disability employment - Title: Inclusion Works. Image: DAS Jennifer Sheehy presents on stage at the 25th anniversary of the ADA Celebration.

On the Friday afternoon before Labor Day weekend, the streets of Washington, D.C., are barren except for a warm breeze blowing a few stragglers home for the three-day weekend. Parking is prolific, and normal congestion is reduced to a stray car passing by. Elvis has left the city, but the Department of Labor (DOL) is on the job. It is here that ABILITY Magazine speaks with Jennifer Sheehy, Deputy Assistant Secretary (DAS) of the Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP) about the challenges she faced as a job seeker with a disability, her active career in disability employment advocacy and education as well as the October celebration of National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM) and #InclusionWorks.

DAS Sheehy’s journey began in St. Louis, MO, during the summer of 1994.

I was in business school. Before this time, I had been working for Marriott and Sheraton in food and beverage marketing. When I went to business school, it was to learn the business side of things and then go into corporate food and beverage or work for a company. During the summer, I was interning at Anheuser-Busch. I was at a pool party when I got pushed backward into the pool and ended up breaking my neck.

I spent a couple weeks in St. Louis, and then I was flown to the National Rehabilitation Hospital (NRH) here in DC because my family’s here. I was an inpatient there for three months, relearning every single thing that you had to do with a spinal cord injury and trying to figure out what I could do with my limited mobility.

All of a sudden, I realized I was having to do more planning and goal-setting. I had to work so hard. I had to have incredible discipline and perseverance. It took me a year and a half to learn how to transfer from my wheelchair to my bed, back and forth, by myself. And then learn to drive again, go back to school and do all those things that I wanted to do before the injury.

At this point, DAS Sheehy was doing well in school. As she recalls, she was among the top in her class and president of the Graduate Marketing Association. Expectations were high, and she expected lots of job offers. DAS Sheehy thought, “Employers are going to see that I’ve been tested and that I went through this major challenge. Who wouldn’t want someone like that?”

DAS Sheehy worked hard to finish up school, did more rehab to get back to work, and even worked for the National Organization for Disabilities (NOD). DAS Sheehy was ready for the job search.

I got a lot of first interviews based on my applications and résumé. I could tell that employers weren’t so sure about what to ask me and how I would do the work. And because I was so new to my injury, I wasn’t sure how to anticipate those questions and address them or even figure out what to tell the employer to take disability out of the equation.

It was an eye-opener to me—especially because I knew about the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act). I assumed that everything had been changed and was accessible and that people knew what their obligations were. When I worked for Marriott in 1990, we had to make a lot of those changes. I was at the Sheraton Wardman Park (now Marriott) in downtown DC at the time, and it was so embarrassing to have to take guests who were in wheelchairs through the kitchens, the service elevators, and the exhibit halls to try to figure out a way to get into the ballroom from the front door. So I really thought the world would be all set up. That was not quite the case.

I recognized very quickly in conversations and in some of the things people said to me, even in a work or an interview context, were so inappropriate. It was like a constant learning or teaching. You had to use every opportunity as a teaching moment to raise expectations.

There was one interview where I was actually kissed on the top of the head after the interview. That doesn’t happen very often. And there was another one where I thought I was doing OK. The woman said, “I just want you to know I know what you’re going through because I have one of you at home.” Those were the most blatantly obvious instances where you knew they weren’t necessarily thinking about you working there, but just getting through the interview. And you still see it today, it’s just not as frequent.

disability employment - DAS Sheehy heads down the hallway of DOL and passes a sign that reads "The world is watching American democracy. Other nations will follow what we do. Failure is unthinkable.--Justin Dart

Barriers to private sector employment lead DAS Sheehy to use her talents in a new career path beginning with NOD and then, a few years later, to the Presidential Task Force on Employment of Adults with Disabilities. DAS Sheehy has held multiple roles of service furthering her mission to support people with disabilities. Her positions included Acting Director of the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research, acting Deputy Commissioner of the Rehabilitation Services Administration and Special Assistant to the Assistant Secretary of the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services. She continues that mission today in working with companies, federal agencies and state governments for ODEP.

Inclusion is more than getting in the employer’s door.

Since the ADA was passed by Congress in 1990, the US has moved from providing access to facilities, services and opportunities to making sure the quality of services are the same. Today, DAS Sheehy sees that the country is much more about inclusion.

People with disabilities need to be able to know they are part of an organization where they have the same career advancement opportunities, training opportunities and networking in affinity groups or whatever it is that anyone else has. That’s really what inclusion is.

I think many employers now want to hire people with disabilities for different reasons. Some people are still coming to the table because they think it’s a good thing to do, but others have gotten it and think, “OK, we know there’s talent out there that we might be leaving behind if our online job applications aren’t accessible or if we’re not seen as a disability-inclusive or friendly company.”

As DAS Sheehy has indicated, employers turn to ODEP for assistance. They say, “Help us create an environment and a culture that says ‘inclusion’ from the time you look at our website, go in the door or start working and interacting with people.”

To research corporate agendas on disability employment practices, ODEP worked with Wharton Business School, now Georgetown’s McDonough School of Business. DAS Sheehy explained they identified three specific employer groups based on diversity and levels of inclusion of persons with disabilities.

The first group is the choir. They get it. They’re at the table for what we would say are all the right reasons. They want to make sure they’re not discriminating and they’re getting the best talent possible. These employers are competing with other companies to get that talent. They try to make sure their diversity agenda includes disability.

Then there are what we call the “inclusives,” companies that value diversity, but they might not be thinking about disability. They know that diverse experiences and perspectives help to solve tough problems and reach a large community of customers.

Third, there’s the group we call the “uninitiated.” Maybe they aren’t quite there on diversity. They haven’t done it, not that they wouldn’t do it. Disability is not what’s on their front burner.

DAS Sheehy said most employers fall under the “inclusives” category and hire people with disabilities for mainly three reasons. The first reason is “It’s a good thing to do.” A CEO or senior executive may have a personal interest, such as a family member with a disability, or they may think it’s a good thing for the community. Second, there are the federal contractors who want to meet Section 503 regulations of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and work toward the hiring goal of seven percent of persons with disabilities in their workforce. And third, there are companies, both large and small, who want the best and the brightest. They recognize the talent and want to be the company of choice for everybody.

The federal government is also one of ODEP’s customers. Since President Obama’s Executive Order in 2010 that called for federal agencies to hire 100,000 persons with disabilities, the federal government has met that goal as of fall of 2015.

Most federal agencies got the message, and they’re doing a better job. We have a long, long, long way to go educating, especially hiring managers, but we see some good statistics and hiring trends. There are more people with disabilities in the federal government right now than I think in the 33 years that they may have been tracking it, and certainly they have hired a higher percentage of people with disabilities. About 19 percent of new hires have been people with disabilities in the federal government.

#InclusionWorks – National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM)

One of ODEP’s many, and favorite, responsibilities is NDEAM. This year’s theme, #InclusionWorks, shows just how far the DOL has come from commemorating the “National Employ the Physically Handicapped Week,” which began in 1945. In 1962, “Physically” was dropped to include more people, and in 1988 it became known as the National Disability Employment Awareness Month. ODEP really got the party going when the office was created in 2001. They helped to bring the theme and more celebration to the month and showcase the talents of people with disabilities.

ODEP chose the hashtag theme #InclusionWorks because inclusion does work, and social media is where engagement happens. The hashtag (#) is used on social media sites, like Twitter and Facebook, to give a word or message importance. When a hashtag gets momentum, it starts trending and more people get involved. Everyone can join in the celebration and build awareness by posting ways #InclusionWorks is happening now. What to post? Images, messages, success stories with employment in small and large businesses or with local and federal governments—everywhere that inclusion of persons with disabilities is occurring. Be sure to use the hashtag, #InclusionWorks.

Employers are onboard with NDEAM and #InclusionWorks.

Companies are coming to us for the posters and materials they can include with their logo and for some of our great resources and speakers. We have a wonderful public service announcement that has aired more than 50,000 times on television stations and can be used at events or on a company’s intranet or in any setting. A lot of these companies are holding events and already have affinity groups of employees with disabilities or allies of people with disabilities. And it’s a fantastic thing to see. We would love to see it more widespread. We know a lot of this is going on without our knowledge—and that’s great—but we’d love to know about it, too. #InclusionWorks

A small office with a big job. And they work hard, even on the Friday before a holiday.

disability employment - DAS Sheehy and Senator Harkin sit face to face as they discuss important issues.
Jennifer Sheehy having a conversation with long-time ABILITY Magazine columnist, Senator Harkin.

NDEAM is only one (and the favorite) of ODEP’s many responsibilities. On a local level, ODEP help ensure that 2500 job centers around the country are serving people with disabilities the same way they serve everyone else who comes looking for a job or help with placement with an employer, training, education or résumé help.

On the federal level, ODEP looks for ways to improve the policy of federal programs and services that benefit people with disabilities. ODEP provides technical assistance to Congress and works with states to adopt policies that work on a federal level. They also ensure that people with disabilities are included at the start of any discussion of labor policy.

And, of course, employers are an important element of ODEP’s big responsibilities.

We’ve seen increased demand from employers to our Technical Assistance Center and Job Accommodation Network (JAN), which is a great resource that does oneon-one confidential phone calls or e-mail exchanges to answer questions about specific accommodations an employee or employer might have. JAN is logging 4,000 to 5,000 contacts per month from employers or employees for assistance.

What’s next for DAS Sheehy?

She graciously and happily looks forward to turning over the reins to the new assistant secretary of ODEP after the new administration takes office.

I happen to be acting right now because our former assistant secretary, Kathy Martinez, became a senior vice president at Wells Fargo, which is exactly what ODEP tries to promote: people going into the private sector and not necessarily doing diversity and HR. Most jobs are not disability-related. So we want to see people with disabilities throughout an organization, but especially in those executive positions.

I’m the deputy assistant secretary, and that’s kind of like the chief of operations for a company. I think that it’s fun to do what I’m doing right now. I love the outreach, especially meeting people, going to conferences and talking to employers and people with disabilities and those who are interested in helping advance employment.

It’s fun to work with someone who comes aboard, has different experiences and priorities because there are lots of ways to get to a goal. And we have a big goal, a big challenge, trying to improve employment for people with disabilities, and there are lots of ways to get there.

Read more articles from the Jon Cryer Issue.

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