Agency Initiatives Involving Persons with Disabilities



As part of its celebration of National Disability Awareness Month this past October, the Office of Civil Rights brought together representatives from several relevant USIA Bureaus to discuss Agency efforts to accommodate persons with disabilities. The panel, entitled "Agency Initiatives Involving Persons with Disabilities," consisted of Carol Weiss, Program Director of USIA's Advisory Referral and Counseling Service (ARCS); Reginald Berry, architect and project manager of USIA's Office of Overseas Design and Technical Assistance; Bruce Boyd, Personnel Policy Officer at the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB); David Levin, E Bureau Senior Program Officer; and Delia Johnson, Deputy Director of the Office of Civil Rights. The panel marked the first time such a diverse group of Agency personnel came together in a public forum to discuss Agency disability initiatives. What follows are a few highlights from this groundbreaking discussion:

--Role of the Office of Civil Rights: Delia Johnson, Deputy Director of the Office of Civil Rights and the Disability Manager for the Agency, identified herself as the official who is required to review and clear all requests for disability retirement and for reasonable accommodation based on medical disability made by Agency employees or applicants for employment. After pointing out that, legally, a person is considered to have a disability if (1) he or she has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities; (2) has a record of such an impairment; or (3) is regarded as having such an impairment, Ms. Johnson went on to clarify what the term "reasonable" means in the context of "reasonable accommodation." According to the relevant court ruling (Bryant v. Better Business Bureau of Mayland, 923 F. Supp. 720, 5 AD Cases 625, 634-35 [D. Md. 1996]), in determining whether an accommodation is "reasonable," the employer must ask whether the accommodation "(1) would be ‘effective,' i.e., would address the job-related difficulties presented by the employee's disability . . . and (2) would allow the employee to attain an ‘equal' level of achievement, opportunity and participation that a non- disabled individual in the same position would be able to achieve."

--E Bureau Efforts: David Levin, who chairs the E Bureau's Diversity Working Group and coordinates USIA's activities for and about people with disabilities, discussed the E Bureau's various efforts to increase the number of disabled participants in the Bureau's exchange programs and activities. One key effort is the Bureau's sponsorship of the National Clearinghouse on Disability and Exchange-- a USIA-funded, collaborative effort between Mobility International USA, USIA and 15 international education exchange and disability-related organizations. The Clearinghouse aims to educate people with disabilities and disability-related organizations about international exchange opportunities and the importance of participating in them, to increase the number of people with disabilities participating in educational exchange, and to assist international educational organizations in making their existing programs more inclusive. The National Clearinghouse on Disability and Exchange, now on the Worldwide Web, can be accessed at http://www.miusa.org, or by e-mail at clearinghouse@miusa.org.

--Accommodation for Persons with Mental & Psychological Disabilities: Carol Weiss, the Program Director and Employee Assistance Counselor for the Agency's Advisory Referral and Counseling Service (ARCS), discussed the role played by the ARCS in aiding persons with psychological or mental disabilities. Carol's office is open to anyone with a psychological or mental impairment seeking assistance on how to best be accommodated in his or her work environment. Frequently, the ARCS acts as mediator, working with management and supervisors to devise accommodation plans for temporarily disabled employees, or with the person's work group to help the group and management devise accommodations which do not place an undue burden on anyone in the work place. At other times, the ARCS helps the person with a disability negotiate arrangements for seeking outside medical appointments which may need to take place during work hours--and, on occasion, aids persons with mental or psychological disabilities arrange more affordable rates for the treatment they require.

--Physical Access at Overseas Facilities: Reginald Berry, who works with USIA's Office of Overseas Design and Technical Assistance (M/AOD), is responsible for developing the architectural programming and space requirements for USIS posts, including ensuring that USIS posts conform to the Uniform Federal Accessibility Standards (UFAS)--the governing design standards of the Architectural Barriers Act of 1968. In 1993, USIA and FBO adopted the UFAS as the handicapped design standard with mandatory compliance on new construction projects, and voluntary compliance on renovation/repair projects. Mr. Berry's appearance on the panel came at a particularly opportune time, because although renovation/repair projects were formerly required to undergo a case by case analysis to assess whether full or partial compliance of the UFAS was warranted, the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act this year has changed this policy. Effective September 4, 1998, with few exceptions, the UFAS will be mandated to the fullest extent possible at ALL Diplomatic and Consular posts. Where full compliance of the UFAS is not feasible due to structural limitations or exorbitant costs, the Agency will make efforts to modify the facilities within all practical limits.

Reginald Berry stressed that now, even more than in the past, selecting the proper type of building overseas is the most important step in trying to meet the UFAS. A bad building is virtually impossible to correct with regards to handicapped access. Therefore, it is critical that a post involve M/AOD ( or FBO) as early in the selection process as possible when considering potential building leases or purchases. M/AOD or FBO can assess whether it is possible for a potential property to fully or partially comply with the UFAS. Post should always remember that when a building is leased/purchased and it can't be modified to meet the UFAS, its acquisition is potentially embarrassing for the Agency and bad for the disabled community. More importantly, the accessibility modifications made to USIS offices and Cultural Centers help achieve the USIS mission of Public Diplomacy. According to Mr. Berry, "by making our properties accessible to the disabled, we expand our audience and our employee talent base to reach out to ALL people. This results in good public diplomacy and good business."


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