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Coworkers collaborating at a deck clump.Coworkers collaborating at a deck clump.
Coworkers collaborating at a deck clump.

The Commitment to DEI & Accessibility for Federal Employees with Disabilities in 2024

TL;DR; In 2024, federal agencies in the United States continue their commitment to promoting accessibility, diversity, and inclusion in the workplace, particularly for individuals with disabilities. These efforts stem from President Biden's Executive Order 14035, signed on June 25, 2021, titled "Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Accessibility in the Federal Workforce". This executive order kick-started a comprehensive, government wide initiative to make the federal workforce a model of diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility.

January 8, 2024

The following article cites and summarizes the recent FEDweek article: EEOC Lists Accessibility Requirements for Federal Workforce.

Defining Accessibility in the Federal Workforce

Section 2(e) of Executive Order 14035 offers a clear definition of accessibility in the context of the federal workforce:

"Accessibility is the design, construction, development, and maintenance of facilities, information and communication technology, programs, and services so that all people, including people with disabilities, can fully and independently use them. Accessibility includes the provision of accommodations and modifications to ensure equal access to employment and participation in activities for people with disabilities, the reduction or elimination of physical and attitudinal barriers to equitable opportunities, a commitment to ensuring that people with disabilities can independently access every outward-facing and internal activity or electronic space, and the pursuit of best practices such as universal design."

This definition underscores the importance of ensuring equal access to employment opportunities and removing barriers that individuals with disabilities may face.

Legal Obligations and Reasonable Accommodations

Federal agencies are held to stringent legal standards concerning accessibility and reasonable accommodations for employees with disabilities. They are prohibited from discriminating based on disability in various aspects of employment, including hiring, advancement, compensation, job training, and other employment privileges. These standards are consistent with those applied under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Moreover, under Section 501 of the Rehabilitation Act, federal agencies are legally obligated to provide reasonable accommodations upon request for qualified employees and job applicants with disabilities unless the agency can demonstrate that such accommodations would impose an undue hardship. These accommodations may involve changes to the work environment or job tasks to enable employees with disabilities to perform their essential job functions and enjoy the same benefits and privileges as non-disabled colleagues.

To learn more about the ADA accommodations process, see our comprehensive article Navigating Reasonable Accommodations: Rights, Responsibilities, and Practical Solutions Under the ADA

Improving Access to Physical Spaces and Facilities

One significant aspect of accessibility involves ensuring that federal buildings, facilities, and physical spaces are accessible to individuals with disabilities. The Architectural Barriers Act (ABA) mandates that individuals with disabilities have "ready access to, and use of" federal buildings and facilities, including those funded by the government and open to the public. Federal agencies are responsible for ensuring their facilities comply with ABA requirements, the U.S. Access Board enforces.

These requirements include stairways, drinking fountains, kitchen areas, bathrooms, parking spaces, and accessible routes to and from federal buildings. Compliance with these standards is essential to make federal spaces accessible and usable by individuals with disabilities.

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Accessibility During Renovation and Outdoor Spaces

Federal agencies must also consider accessibility during renovation projects. Failure to address accessibility needs during such projects can lead to violations of the Rehabilitation Act. For example, in Birchfield v. Department of the Air Force, an employee with disabilities requested accommodations related to building access during construction, and the agency failed to show that implementing these modifications would be an undue hardship.

The ABA extends to outdoor spaces on agency property, including accessible parking spaces. Denying an accessible parking space can constitute a violation of the Rehabilitation Act, as demonstrated in Malorie D. v. Department of Justice. Agencies must ensure that outdoor spaces are inclusive and accessible.

Access to Information and Information Technology (ICT)

Ensuring that documents and information, both physical and digital, are accessible to individuals with disabilities is another critical aspect of accessibility. Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act mandates that federal agencies make their information and communication technology (ICT) accessible to individuals with disabilities. This includes agency equipment like computers, copiers, printers, agency websites, software, and electronic documents.

Agencies must identify the ICT needs of individuals with disabilities, determine how ICT will support them, and ensure that accessible ICT is available to all users. This promotes equal access to agency data and information.

Adaptive Software and Hardware as Reasonable Accommodations

To meet the needs of employees with disabilities, federal agencies are required to provide adaptive software and hardware as reasonable accommodations. For example, individuals with vision impairments may need larger monitors, while those with dyslexia may require adaptive software. Agencies must ensure that these accommodations are effective, compatible with their existing hardware and software, and continually provided as systems are upgraded.

In Ruben T. v. Department of Justice, the EEOC ruled that removing adaptive software from an employee's computer violated the Rehabilitation Act. Similarly, in Frederick A. v. Department of Defense, the agency's failure to provide a larger computer monitor as a reasonable accommodation constituted a violation of the act.

Conclusion

In 2024, federal agencies in the United States remain committed to ensuring accessibility, diversity, and inclusion in the workforce, focusing on accommodating employees with disabilities. President Biden's Executive Order 14035 serves as a driving force behind these efforts. Compliance with the Rehabilitation Act, the ABA, Section 508, and the ADA is vital in creating a more equitable and accessible work environment where all federal employees can participate fully and equally. This commitment to accessibility not only fulfills legal obligations but also promotes a more inclusive and diverse federal workforce.

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