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News | Sept. 1, 2017

Adept and Adapting

By Nancy Anthony, Mohammad Fawaz, Colin Grigg, Olivia Kortuem and Ephraim Ungar

Almost one-fifth of Americans have some type of disability, according to the U.S. Census, and even more will become disabled at some point.

Although many people with disabilities fear they won’t find or regain employment that makes the most of their abilities, the Defense Logistics Agency makes sure it actively recruits and develops these workers, for the benefit of the agency, the warfighter and the nation.

DLA does this through the Workforce Recruitment Program, jointly managed by the Department of Defense and the Department of Labor.

A few WRP participants agreed to share their stories here.

Mo Fawaz

It all started when I was accepted to intern at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in Dallas, Texas. Initially, I was terrified of disclosing my visual impairment, out of fear the EEOC would find an excuse to rescind my acceptance. 

I only did so with a few letters of recommendation, to assure the staff I could do the work. And they were so great. They just asked about the reasonable accommodation I needed, and everything else remained the same. I later learned that they had a visually impaired investigator there, too. 

My experience at the EEOC was so wonderful, I resolved to work for the federal government if possible. However, the EEOC has few openings, they don’t take attorneys right out of law school, and the other EEOC jobs are so competitive, it would’ve been difficult to find employment there via the competitive hiring process. 

I decided that working in the field of EEO, at any federal agency, would be a more attainable dream. Around that time, my law school sent out an email about the Workforce Recruitment Program. I applied and had my phone interview with the WRP recruiter.

My fear was always that an employer who learned of my disability would find a way to get rid of me. You have to experience it to believe it, but people fear blindness more than the plague. They’re usually reluctant to give us, individuals who are blind, a chance. This fear is increased when the job is in a different state, requiring the new hire to relocate. 

However, because this is the federal government, and because the WRP is a program for individuals with severe disabilities, my worries were alleviated. 

Once I was set to come on board, I disclosed my impairment to Eric Spanbauer, the disability program coordinator. He asked about my need for accommodations and promptly ordered screen-reading software and PDF-to-word software before I arrived. And because some documents involve handwriting or are poorly scanned, I occasionally needed a person to read documents to me.

My position was as an equal employment opportunity assistant. My supervisor was Carl Downey. He treated me like he would treat my coworkers, because he wanted me to succeed. 

Nearly two months into the program, Carl introduced me to my mentor, Becky Polansky, accounting manager in Human Resources. She met with me on a short notice and spoke with me nearly an hour. She volunteered to share my resume with the various offices under Schedule A hiring authority. Because I’m licensed to practice law and was interested in personnel law, Becky introduced me to Troy Holroyd at the Office of General Counsel.

My 14-week WRP appointment was extended by two months to find me a position. Troy, Becky, Janice Samuel and others at the EEO Office, and others at the Office of General Counsel, worked hard to help me become a paralegal specialist for DLA. 

Before coming to DLA as a WRP intern, I had applied for hundreds of positions, many with federal and state governments. Unfortunately, employers often assume individuals with disabilities are helpless and unable to do the work — rather than giving us the opportunity to prove ourselves. In fact, I’ve been to job interviews that were concluded before they even began because of my white cane. 

WRP gave me the chance I needed and deserved, to prove my abilities as a productive part of society. The program gives us, individuals with disabilities, the chance we would not otherwise get. 

I came to DLA nearly a year ago, and  I love every minute of it. 

Colin Grigg

My experience as a WRP participant has changed my life. Before WRP, I worked long hours for a moving company, lifting heavy furniture up and down stairs. By chance, I stumbled on the WRP when I saw a sign for an information session at a community college. 

My diagnosis is Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder. I’ve been taking medication for it since elementary school. Often, my mind races, and I’m unable to focus — which can make me unable to perform my duties. 

After an interview with a WRP recruiter in September 2015, I was told employers might contact me again in the summer. My plan was to get my foot in the door with the government and accept the first position I was offered. (But all told, I was contacted by at least five different agencies that year.) 

DLA called me in May for a position in the Equal Employment Opportunity Office. After a conversation with the supervisor and a follow-up phone interview with the team, I started work in June 2016. 

The DLA EEO Office was the ideal start in the federal government. I was provided great leadership and mentorship. I was given complex assignments that required research skills. I learned the process to create policies, regulations and procedures. I used creativity to implement new means of collecting and displaying information. 

My position was extended, and I got hired back through the program the following April. This gave me time to complete my bachelor’s degree in Computer Information Systems and General Management.

My supervisor sat me down in the beginning and asked me what I wanted to do. I told her it would be nice to learn about the information technology field at DLA

I now work with a variety of IT teams. I help with troubleshooting, setting up and configuring voice over internet protocol phones. I help set up video teleconferences. I shadow the local-area network team to learn more about how networks operate. Sometimes I work with the asset management team, keeping inventory. I work with great people while learning more daily. 

From my perspective, the WRP gives people who wouldn’t normally have the opportunity a chance to gain experience in the federal government. And then it’s up to the individual to shine and make a name for themselves. 

If you might be eligible, I recommend you apply for the program. Wayne Gretzky said, “You miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take.” The program is designed to open doors for participants; it gives you at least 14 weeks of opportunity to network, learn and grow. 

If you get into the WRP, ask about training you can take advantage of. Ask about rules and regulations you’re unsure of. And most importantly, ask your supervisor to get you in contact with a mentor in the field you’re interested in. Nurturing those types of relationships is how you will succeed in the WRP.

The DLA WRP has been wonderful in providing a structured program that has boosted my confidence and elevated my career potential. 

Olivia Lynn Kortuem

When I was six years old, I was diagnosed with dyslexia, a learning and cognitive disability also known as a hidden disability. 

A person who is dyslexic uses the brain differently to decode information. This means the typical academic abilities like reading, writing and math are difficult and may take more time. Despite this, dyslexia does not affect general intelligence.

Dyslexia has had a profound effect on my belief in myself. Throughout my basic education, I was in special education classes, and my peers were much further ahead in reading, writing and math. I did not learn to read on my own until I was in the 8th grade and almost did not graduate high school. 

As a young adult, I could not drive or read a book out loud to my son unless I memorized it. I could not even write out the simplest of things, like a shopping list. Despite how I felt about my abilities and myself to do anything academic, my husband helped enroll me at the local community college at age 26.

In the fall of 2008, I saw an email advertising the Workforce Recruitment Program. Normally, I would talk myself out of trying, because I was convinced there was nothing I could offer in an office environment. But one of my college teachers helped me to “own” my disability and stop trying to hide from it.

With this new perspective, I had the confidence to interview and was hired for a summer WRP internship at DLA, as a law clerk in the Office of General Counsel.

At first, there was little I could do, but whatever task I was given, I did my best and made sure to show how grateful I was to be there and to help. 

It turned out to be the perfect environment for me. The people were so understanding, kind, and helpful that I was able to flourish. They asked me to come back for a second WRP internship in the summer of 2010.

After the second internship ended, they helped me get an internship in a position that fit my skills and abilities perfectly in Corporate Events. I was later hired full-time into Logistics Operations. I was very fortunate that people in the OGC saw such potential in me and believed in me far more than I believed in myself. 

I have worked for DLA for over seven years and have been promoted several times. In that time, I found myself taking on new tasks, projects and roles that help me realize how capable I am and how much I have to contribute to the agency.

My disability remains difficult; there are things I cannot do, but I’ve learned to adapt. Technology, like software issued by the Computer/Electronic Accommodations Program, helps with writing and reading. I can do budgeting and math by using Excel. 

When I tell people that I have a disability, they seemed astonished. I believe that dyslexia and other cognitive disabilities, where a person thinks and learns differently, can be very valuable to an organization or team because of how our minds work. Our approach to problem solving can be the innovative thinking that is needed. There have been times that my ideas and strategy were used to solve complex issues. I am a big-picture, deep thinker, always thinking of how to solve problems. In my opinion, I have these abilities because of my dyslexia and not despite it. 

I owe my career to the WRP. It opened a door that would not have been there, and gave me and others an opportunity to see how capable and valuable we are if only given a chance. 

I have learned to talk about my disability as a struggle not be ashamed of, as vulnerable as it makes me feel. I now know that if kind people are listening, I can use my experiences to build awareness for others with hidden disabilities in hopes that they will be accepted, understood and given opportunities to thrive in a federal career.

Ephraim Ungar

It may be cliché, but it’s true: I owe everything to the Workforce Recruitment Program.

I graduated from college two years ago. I figured with my degree, office experience, and even a few published pieces of fiction, landing a job would be easy. 

Instead, nearly every place I applied to turned me down. However, I was able to land a WRP internship with the Army Equal Employment Opportunity office in Wiesbaden, Germany.

Those three months were some of the best of my life. I gained experience in my first real full-time position with two highly experienced EEO specialists as my mentors. They gave me a crash course in what an EEO office does, and then had me assist in a variety of tasks, including updating training spreadsheets, reorganizing the office filing and supply cabinets and, most importantly, launching, editing and contributing to an EEO newsletter sent to EEO offices across Army Europe.

Not only that, but the people I worked with were very understanding of my autism spectrum disorder. Because I sometimes don’t understand when I make social mistakes, my co-workers took the time to explain why something I did was a mistake and how I could avoid repeating it. It was comforting to have people who understood my needs and took the time to help me, rather than assuming I was rude and refusing to speak to me.

In addition, I was able to immerse myself in the culture of my host country, improving my language skills, traveling to places I’d only read about and learning what it’s like to live day-to-day as a German. Those were some of the happiest days of my life, and I owe that all to the WRP.

After I returned from Germany, I set out on a job search again, hoping to find something soon before I had to start paying student loans off. Unfortunately, I faced the same problem that had beset me prior to Germany: I was considered too inexperienced, even for positions considered entry level. 

Luckily, I was able to apply again to the WRP, and after a number of interviews and applications, I was offered two internships. One was an EEO position with DLA in the city I live in. I took that position, and in two months I was converted to full employment, something I’d been hoping and praying for since graduation.

A year later, I’m still in that position, and I love it. I’m helping employees with disabilities gain accommodations that help them do their work, something I find very fulfilling. I’m surrounded by a great team of people who love to laugh and are passionate about the work we do. And they’re understanding of my autism and give me the guidance I need when I ask for help. I’m able to pay my bills and live comfortably thanks to the pay and benefits I earn. I go into the office every day grateful for the opportunities the WRP has sent my way.

In an interesting twist, this year I was made the WRP coordinator for DLA Land and Maritime, which has been challenging, but rewarding. For the students I work with, there’s a chance the WRP could do for them what it did for me, and I’m happy to be part of that. 

Because the WRP works. And if it can work so well for me, I want to make sure it works for everyone who comes after me.

An Asset for Managers

The WRP is not just a great thing for participants; it also offers managers several unique advantages, said Eric Spanbauer, the former manager of the program, who is now DLA’s program manager for special emphasis programs & affirmative employment.

Spanbauer said he’s seen managers who had been resistant to hiring WRP participants become enthusiastic about the program after trying an employee for 14 weeks and seeing the person contribute beyond expectations.

Many supervisors have asked participants to come back. In fact, DLA has hired over 950 WRP participants since 1995, when the program began.

WRP is also a fast way to hire a qualified candidate, he noted. 

“Among many pluses is the ease of using Schedule A authority to hire noncompetitively after 14 weeks of satisfactory performance,” Spanbauer said.

He added that the program also brings a significant amount of DoD funding to DLA, since DoD funds each WRP internship entirely.

Spanbauer noted DLA offers free assistive technologies available through the Computer/Electronic Accommodation Program and job accommodations through the Job Accommodations Network. 

In addition, “We have excellent EEO WRP coordinators providing great support and guidance for both supervisors and employees,” he said. 

He concluded: “I cannot emphasize how important and advantageous the WRP is to the DLA workforce.”