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The Employer Assistance and Resource Network on Disability Inclusion (EARN) offers information and resources to help employers recruit, hire, retain and advance people with disabilities; build inclusive workplace cultures; and meet diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility (DEIA) goals. 

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Section 503 Best Practices for Federal Contractors

Learn about strategies to help federal contractors meet their obligations under Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act and recruit, hire, advance and retain workers with disabilities.

EARN developed this guide to assist federal contractors in complying with Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act and support their efforts to attract, hire, advance and retain employees with disabilities. The Department of Labor’s Office of Federal Contractor Compliance Programs (OFCCP) enforces Section 503.

This guide builds on EARN's Inclusion@Work Framework, which outlines seven components of a disability-inclusive workplace:

Each of the components is explained in this guide, along with best practices and resources for implementing them.

Lead the Way

All levels of an organization should commit to creating a diverse, equitable, inclusive and accessible work environment.

Action by leadership can establish a more inclusive business culture. For example, listening sessions on disability concerns with senior leadership show interest and commitment.
  • Resource: This EARN webpage explains how to express a commitment to disability inclusion in your organization.

This training can foster a more inclusive workplace. Communicating the goal of an inclusive workplace to all employees—and indicating what they can do to help—is also important.
  • Resource: This article from the Job Accommodation Network (JAN), a resource of the U.S. Department of Labor's Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP), discusses effective strategies for disability awareness training.

Managers, supervisors and human resources staff involved in hiring decisions should understand the role they play in facilitating an inclusive environment. For example, managers can set the tone by discussing disability inclusion openly with their colleagues.
  • Resource: This EARN webpage explains what it means to be “disability inclusive” and why it matters.

Learn about ten other strategies to build an inclusive culture, including input on accessible workplaces and work-life programs, on EARN's Inclusion@Work – Lead the Way webpage.

Build the Pipeline

Many companies struggle to find qualified candidates with disabilities. Good outreach and recruitment can help you find these workers, especially if you develop relationships with many recruitment sources that provide access to a diverse range of candidates.

Organizations like VR agencies have access to a roster of qualified candidates with disabilities. Some of these organizations also maintain job boards for their clients.

Be sure that your website is accessible for people with disabilities. Allow potential candidates to reach you by multiple means, because different formats work for different people.

Learn about ten other strategies to find talented people with disabilities, including recruiting veterans with disabilities and outreach through networking groups, on EARN's Inclusion@Work Build the Pipeline webpage.

Hire and Keep

Hiring and keeping workers with disabilities is the basis of a disability-inclusive workplace. Simple practices and changes can make your workplace a place for people with disabilities to join and grow. These methods start with a job application and continue through promotion.

Some of these policies and processes include qualifications and job announcements, the hiring process, and career development and advancement. Each of these processes can affect people with disabilities in different ways. For example:
  • Align the job description to the tasks of the role.
  • Specify when relevant that applicants with disabilities are preferred. A preference for candidates with disabilities is legal.
  • Make sure the various processes in a job application, such as resume submission or interviews, are accessible. For example, do not rely on telephone interviews alone, and make sure that your application and submission website are accessible. You may wish to simplify your process if it involves many steps.
  • Make clear in policies and processes how employees with disabilities can advance in the workplace. For example: what training opportunities are available?
    • Resource: This EARN guide (PDF) offers strategies to attract, retain and advance employees with disabilities in the workplace.
    • Resource: EARN's Job Descriptions Checklist (PDF) provides instructions on how to create job announcements and descriptions to communicate a commitment to inclusion to applicants. This practice encourages people with disabilities to apply.
    • Resource: This checklist (PDF) developed by EARN and the Partnership on Employment and Accessible Technology (PEAT) helps employers facilitate hiring people with disabilities through common e-recruiting tools.

Learn about more than twenty other strategies to hire and keep talent, including inclusive job announcements and professional development training, on EARN's Inclusion@Work – Hire and Keep webpage.

Ensure Productivity

Some people with disabilities may need reasonable accommodations to do their job. An accommodation is any modification or adjustment to a job or work environment that enables a qualified person with a disability to apply for or perform a job. According to the Job Accommodation Network (JAN), more than half of all workplace accommodations cost nothing. Federal law requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations.

For example: how long does it take for an accommodation to be provided? Is the process clear and easy to follow or administer? One way to check on this may be to survey employees who have been accommodated.

This information should include the protocols and policies on accommodations, how to request accommodations, who to contact and how to know whether or not you may benefit from an accommodation. Post this information in easy-to-find places, like the front page of your company’s intranet. You should also provide information on accommodations for all applicants; for example, in the job listing.
  • Resource: This EARN webpage provides basic information about reasonable accommodations.

These clear policies will help protect your workers from harm.
  • Resource: JAN’s Workplace Accommodation Toolkit provides guidance and resources for developing or updating accommodation policies and processes while using the best practices available to date.

It is easier for one office or one person to provide accommodations and help employees. Similarly, many companies find success in using one budget line, or a “centralized accommodation fund,” to pay for accommodations that cost money.

Learn more about reasonable accommodations, including the role of line managers, from EARN’s Inclusion@Work – Ensure Productivity webpage.

Communicate

Good communication practices within and from your organization strengthen disability inclusion.

Disability etiquette training will help you and your colleagues interact more productively with employees and customers with disabilities. Change any communication practices that rely on one method that might be inaccessible, and challenge language that can exclude some people with disabilities.

Focus communication and inclusion training on managers and supervisors. Managers and supervisors set the tone for the rest of the organization. Many companies find that training managers has a ripple effect on inclusion; these employees bring disability inclusion to their teams.

Post information about your company's disability policies and programs on your website. Include disability inclusion information - such as accommodations information - in employee handbooks.
  • Resource: This article from JAN will help you write a usable, accurate statement on disability inclusion and reasonable accommodations.

These groups support employees in their work and disability inclusion in a company. ERGs work best when leaders support and companies fund them. ERGs can also help make external communications more disability-friendly.

ERGs tend to be most effective when they are started by employees with disabilities themselves, and when they are supported by a dedicated budget. If your organization does work in multiple locations, consider having localized ERGs to meet local cultural and disability needs.
  • Resource: This EARN Toolkit (PDF) will help you start and support a disability ERG at your organization.

Encourage employees to mentor their colleagues with disabilities. An ERG can strengthen this mentorship program. Mentorship programs are especially successful when senior leaders participate as mentors.
  • Resource: This EARN fact sheet (PDF) shows how mentoring programs help employees with disabilities.

Include people with visible disabilities in your company's external and internal communications. You can also target your social media outreach to people with disabilities.
  • Resource: This webinar from Disability:IN will teach you about best practices when communicating with customers and other people with disabilities.

Learn about more twenty other strategies for inclusive communication, including the roles of awards and assistance programs, from the EARN Inclusion@Work – Communicate webpage.

Be Tech Savvy

Information and communication technology (ICT) needs to be accessible for people with disabilities to thrive in your workplace. These technologies also matter for communicating with the public, hiring applicants and selling your programs.

Your staff should also attend trainings and workshops on ICT accessibility, so that everyone is aware of their responsibilities when they produce documents, social media and web content. Staff members who handle ICT should receive detailed training. Create simple resources like guides and checklists on technology access to help everyone make content usable.

Many companies report that the accessibility of their documents and website show their commitment to inclusion. As a result, employees, candidates and customers feel more included.

When planning changes to your ICT, check to ensure these changes do not create interoperability issues between the organization’s technologies and assistive technologies used by employees with disabilities.

Include accessibility requirements and testing for accessibility in your procurement and contracts. When you evaluate the provider, include their performance on accessibility.

Learn about more than twenty other strategies for accessible technology, including on needs assessments and user testing, from the EARN Inclusion@Work – Be Tech Savvy webpage.

Measure Success

These strategies can support your efforts to use data and encourage employees to self-identify. This information will enhance your disability inclusion efforts.

“Self-identification” means that an employee with a disability volunteers to identify as such in a specific process. In compliance with Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, federal contractors must invite applicants to self-identify as having a disability at the pre-offer and post-offer stages of hiring. They also must survey their employees for self-identification every five years, although many companies find it more effective to survey employees every year.

Also, explain how the data will be used. Self-identification helps you track your disability hiring progress, and meet your obligations under Section 503.

Allow employees to do so as they complete routine updates, like changing their address. Many companies find that this practice encourages self-identification.

Many companies report that having representation of disability in management makes other employees more comfortable with self-identification. Showcasing successful employees with disabilities in communications also encourages self-identification. This practice makes many workers feel more comfortable about being open about their disabilities at work.

Holding staff accountable for disability initiatives produces better results, especially in hiring and advancement. Keep track of hiring, accommodations processes and communications – and analyze that data regularly. This process will help you not only meet your goals and evaluate managers’ performance, but also identify places to improve.

Learn about more than fifteen other strategies for tracking progress on disability inclusion, including data management and benchmarks for inclusion goals, on the EARN Inclusion@Work – Measure Success webpage.

Additional Resources

These resources can help you learn more about disability inclusion in your workplace.

Department of Labor Resources

Office of Federal Contractor Compliance Programs (OFCCP) Resources

Other Department of Labor Resources

  • The Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP) promotes policies that help people with disabilities find, keep and grow in jobs.
  • This public service announcement, "Who I Am," introduces viewers to the Campaign for Disability Employment (CDE). The CDE is a media-based effort to change attitudes about disability employment. The CDE is an ODEP-funded service.
  • The Job Accommodation Network (JAN) provides free, expert and confidential advice on workplace accommodations and other disability employment issues. JAN is an ODEP-funded service.
  • The Partnership on Employment and Accessible Technology (PEAT) provides resources for digital accessibility in the workplace and in new, emerging technologies. PEAT is an ODEP-funded service.
  • WorkforceGPS is an online technical assistance and training website from the Department of Labor’s Employment and Training Administration. The website includes disability-specific resources.