The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has been busy of late: Last week the agency warned employers about the potential for the use of artificial intelligence (AI) technology to violate the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA). Now the organization charged with enforcing federal laws prohibiting employment discrimination has issued a report noting that while opportunities for people with disabilities in the federal workforce are improving, more work needs to be done in the areas of retention and leadership representation.

The study, titled “The EEO Status of Workers with Disabilities in the Federal Sector,” compiled demographic data about federal workers with disabilities, hiring, promotion, and separation from employment at federal agencies. The report also examined complaints about discrimination based on disability, and ways that the government is improving accessibility for persons with disabilities.

Key Takeaways

  • New EEOC study shows improved opportunities for federal employees with disabilities, but a need for more progress when it comes to retention and leadership representation.
  • The study, released May 19, 2022, compiled data on hiring, promotion, separation from employment, complaints about discrimination, and attempts by the government to improve accessibility.
  • A large percentage of the federal workforce chose not to identify their disability status.
  • Two levels of disability, PWD and PWTD, are identified in the report.

Significant Findings of the Study

Findings of the EEOC study include the following:

  • A large percentage of the federal workforce did not identify their disability status.
  • Although the overall participation rate of PWD in the federal workforce has increased since FY 2014, agencies need to work on improving retention and access to leadership positions.
  • The government exceeded its 2% goal for hiring PWTD but fell short of its 12% goal for PWD.
  • PWD and PWTD were less likely than persons with no disabilities to rise to a position of leadership with its greater authority and higher pay.
  • Non-sexual harassment and reasonable accommodations are the most complaints.
  • Disparities by disability status for non-voluntary separations were larger in FY 2018 than in the previous four years.

Purpose of the Study

The study examined data from 2014 through 2018 in order to establish a baseline for measuring the effects of an EEOC final rule, titled “Affirmative Action for Individuals with Disabilities in the Federal Government,” issued Jan. 17, 2017.

In addition to the baseline, the report helps identify current trends for workers with disabilities in the federal sector including participation rates of persons with disabilities (PWD) and persons with targeted disabilities (PWTD) and the ways federal agencies have improved accessibility for PWD.

EEOC Levels of Disability

The EEOC study identifies two levels of disability: persons with a disability (PWD) and persons with a targeted disability (PWTD). A PWD is someone who reports having:

  • “A physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities”
  • “A record of such an impairment”
  • “Regarded as having such an impairment”

A PWTD refers to someone who reports they have any of the following:

  • Developmental disabilities, for example, cerebral palsy or autism spectrum disorder
  • Traumatic brain injuries
  • Deafness or serious difficulty hearing
  • Blindness or serious difficulty seeing even when wearing glasses
  • Missing extremities (arm, leg, hand, and/or foot)
  • Significant mobility impairments
  • Partial or complete paralysis
  • Epilepsy and other seizure disorders
  • Intellectual disabilities
  • Psychiatric disabilities
  • Dwarfism
  • Significant disfigurement

A large percentage of the federal workforce chose not to identify their disability status, according to the report.

Participation by PWD and PWTD in the Federal Workforce

Just over 9.4% of federal employees reported themselves as PWD (which includes PWTD) in 2018. This represents an 8% increase from the 8.68% reported participation rate in 2014. The percentage of those who self-identified as PWTD was 1.69% in 2018, compared to 1.02% in 2014.

During this period, federal agencies were found to raise awareness of accessibility for persons with disabilities and improved technological resources to make workplaces more accessible. Promotion rates for PWD were found to be similar to what would be expected based on their participation rate.

9.42% and 1.69%

Percentage of the federal workforce that self-reported as PWD and PWTD, respectively, in 2018.

Numbers were less encouraging among the ranks of federal sector leadership where persons with disabilities are still underrepresented. Among PWTD, only 10.7% are in leadership positions and just 13.59% of PWD have achieved that status. By comparison, 16.35% of persons without disabilities are in leadership positions.

PWTD Face Additional Problems

As the data above shows, federal employees with the most severe disabilities represent a smaller percentage of the workforce and have a proportionally smaller leadership role. It may not be surprising, then, that PWTD employees were also found to leave federal employment at more than twice the rate of people without disabilities. As a matter of policy, the federal government has a special emphasis on recruiting, hiring, and retaining people with targeted disabilities.

It’s also worth noting that persons with disabilities (PWD) were 53% more likely to involuntarily leave than those without disabilities. In addition, PWD and PWTD were more likely to voluntarily leave federal employment than people without disabilities.

Harassment, Accommodation Complaints Increase

The report also found that physical disability-based complaints increased 22% over the five years covered by the EEOC study. Mental disability-based complaints increased 72%. This outpaced the overall increase in federal sector EEO complaints. The report concluded that the increase could be due to an increase in discrimination and an increased willingness of persons with disabilities to file an EEO complaint.

The report concludes with this statement: “The Federal sector should continue to strive towards developing a workforce that broadly reflects the diversity of our society, one that is in inclusive of workers with disabilities. This will serve to enhance the capabilities of the Federal government, as well as to empower PWD with economic self-sufficiency, independence, and integration into society.”

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