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Jennifer Sheehy speaking at RespectAbility's 2018 summit

Sheehy on Disability Employment: “We are going to have some hard work ahead of us, but it’s work worth doing”

Washington, D.C., Aug. 31 – At RespectAbility’s annual disability summit on Capitol Hill, Jennifer Sheehy spoke about the federal government’s efforts to increase employment participation rates for people with disabilities.

Sheehy is the Deputy Assistant Secretary for the Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP). The Office of Disability Employment Policy is a federal resource for people of all ages who have disabilities, and are trying to find jobs. Sheehy’s previous work includes the U.S. Department of Education with the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (OSERS). Sheehy is an alumna of Cornell University and Georgetown University.

According to Sheehy, “we’ve seen 26 consecutive months of job improvements for people with disabilities.” She believes that because of this progress, we should take time to analyze data available to tease out factors that led to outcome improvements in order to implement them broadly.

Although this improvement is hopeful, Sheehy added, “we still have very low labor force participation and high unemployment rate for people with disabilities.” For example, in the already competitive entertainment industry, the unemployment rate for people without disabilities is 9.3, but the unemployment rate for people with disabilities is 12.1.

Sheehy mentioned a report that studied 800 films and found that “only 2.4 percent of the characters in those films had a disability.” While the entertainment industry has made strides, there is still a long way to go to achieve full representation, inclusivity and accessibility.

Sheehy’s boss, Secretary Alexander Acosta has worked on several initiatives that Sheehy shared with the audience. Feedback from employers is critical to ensure that organizations like ODEP can support them in creating more equitable and accessible workplaces. In Sheehy’s time, the State Exchange on Employment and Disability (SEED) was established. SEED works with state legislatures to ensure that statewide policies are adopted to improve employment of people with disabilities in state and private sector jobs across the state. Currently, SEED collaborates with four organizations: National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), Council of State Governors (CSG), National Governors Association (NGA) and Women in Government (WIG).

Through the SEED initiative, policy experts respond to the state’s requests in terms of employment, resources and support needs. Then SEED works with state legislature to share examples of inclusive policies and practices to help implement them within the states.

Thanks to OSERS, SEED, ODEP and many other federal and state level organizations, people with disabilities can acquire resources to help them secure a job and an education. “For people with disabilities, there are so many different benefits, services, agencies involved,” she said.

Sheehy noted that the entertainment industry is a great field to offer internships and apprenticeships to people with disabilities. The federal government can “make them more accessible or help start apprenticeships and make sure that people with disabilities are included.”

ODEP manages several tools for employers and job seekers with disabilities, including the Job Accommodation Network (JAN), which is an online resource where employees and employers can receive one on one consulting to navigate accessibility, accommodations and job resources. The Employer Assistance and Resource Network on Disability Inclusion (EARN – www.askearn.org) is a resource for employers to support them in their efforts to recruit, hire, retain and advance qualified individuals with disabilities. The Partnership for Employment and Accessible Technology (PEAT – www.peatworks.org) is another resource that Sheehy mentioned, that helps ensure that all parts of the application and employment process are accessible to people with disabilities.

“We are going to have some hard work ahead of us, but it’s work worth doing,” Sheehy added. As these organizations continue to grow and diversify, employment and education opportunities for people with disabilities will too.

The summit, held by RespectAbility, a nonprofit organization fighting stigmas and advancing opportunities for people with disabilities, took place in the Rayburn House Office Building. The event consisted of networking opportunities, as well as panels on employment, media inclusion, fighting bias and intersectionality.

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