Army command honored for hiring workers with disabilities

DefenseUnrest, Conflicts and WarU.S. ArmyJob MarketJobs and WorkplaceU.S. Department of DefenseVeterans Affairs

Bob DiMichele's left leg has been paralyzed since he was 2 years old. But he says it hasn't held him back from a three-decade career as a civilian in the Defense Department.

The public affairs officer for the Army's Communications-Electronics Command, based at Aberdeen Proving Ground, has completed advanced Army coursework and moved seven times for his job. In all his years, he says, he has yet to encounter discrimination.

"I never met any organization or institutional barriers," said DiMichele, 53.

His command, known as CECOM, is to be honored next month by Harford County's Commission on Disabilities for its efforts to improve the hiring of people with disabilities. The command, which has about 2,400 civilian employees at Aberdeen, hired 91 people with disabilities last year, according to Army figures.

The Department of Defense has focused on boosting the numbers of people with disabilities who are hired, whether they are wounded veterans or civilians who never served in uniform.

DiMichele says service members returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have helped make defense workers more aware of people with disabilities.

Neslie Etheridge, the Equal Employment Opportunity director at CECOM, said in an interview that the entire command of 8,000 civilian workers has 700 people with disabilities. CECOM also has posts at three other U.S. Army bases, in Pennsylvania, Texas and Arizona.

"When veterans come back from conflict or get out of the military, they're seeking employment," Etheridge said. "It's my responsibility to have an inclusive workforce."

President Obama issued an executive order three years ago to increase employment opportunities for veterans. Two years ago, he signed an order that called on federal agencies to boost recruitment and hiring of the disabled in general.

At the time, the administration noted that 54 million Americans have disabilities, and five percent of the 2.5 million-strong federal workforce had disabilities.

Several federal agencies, including each of the armed services, have employed more than double that rate, according to a recent report from the federal Office of Personnel Management.

That July report offered a snapshot into the employment of people with disabilities by the military and other executive branch agencies. The Department of Defense last year employed 95,000 people with disabilities, out of its total 700,000 civilian employees.

The Army employed last year nearly 39,000 workers with disabilities among its total 255,000 civilian employees — or 15 percent. The Army had the highest percentage of disabled employees among the armed forces. Figures for prior years were not available.

In the case of CECOM, which moved to Aberdeen from Fort Monmouth, N.J., during the national base realignment process known as BRAC, it helps that its employees work in a state-of-the-art $800 million campus that's handicap-accessible — unlike some of the World War I-era buildings DiMichele has worked in the past.

DiMichele was recently nominated as a mentor in a new DOD program for employees with disabilities, where he'll work with a junior employee to help him or her with their adjustment to working in the Army.

"Everybody has their own challenges," DiMichele said. "You've got to have your accommodations."

"I have an employee on campus, and I've been working with her and CECOM to get her an accommodation with her disability," he added. "People have been more than willing to find an answer."

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Defense Dept. Disability Statistics Employees with disabilities (percentage of total workforce in each department)

Army: 38,801 (15.19 percent)

Veterans Affairs: 41,459 (14.94 percent

Air Force: 20,567 (12.36 percent)

Navy: 23,029 (12 percent)

Total DOD: 94,897 (13.56 percent)

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