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Dinah Cohen reports on Disability Initiatives of the U.S. Department of Defense

By Andrea Shettle

open quotation markThe government's current goal is to hire 32,000 people with disabilities in government jobs and to retain them as employees.close quotation mark

Dinah Cohen Speak to Reporter
Plenary speaker Dinah Cohen talks to a Proyecto Visión newsletter reporter while Karen Rose provides ASL interpretation

For Dinah Cohen, Director of the Computer/Electronic Accommodations Program (CAP) at the U.S. Department of Defense, easing the way to employment for Latino workers with disabilities isn't just part of her job. It is also an issue close to home. "I'm a Hispanic woman with a disability," Cohen shared in an interview after her plenary presentation. "I think it's important to always talk about employment and accessibility as a Hispanic woman with a disability. It has affected me and my career. I'm always surprised when people don't know about opportunities for people with disabilities. I need your help to get the word out there."

Cohen's family came to the United States in 1951 after surviving Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp; at that time, they spoke Spanish, among many other languages. Cohen has had a rare heart disease since childhood. "Having a hidden disability presents some unique problems and issues," said Cohen. "When I was in school and was not able to attend gym or do activities, the issue was: 'When do I tell my classmates that I have a disability?' This remained true as I entered the workforce. 'Do I tell my boss? Do I need to tell? Will they hire me? Fire me?'

"My career has been quite good but I was released from a county job when my boss learned about my hidden disability. There were no laws or regulations to protect people with disabilities and I was out of a job. Luckily, it was a summer position and I returned to school. I learned that self-identification is done on a case-by-case situation. Having the security of the people around you and the laws make it easier to self-identify and not be afraid of having a disability and people's reactions."

Today, Cohen works to ensure that other people with disabilities do not need to experience barriers as they progress in their careers in the federal government. That passion brought her to Manhattan for the Proyecto Visión conference to deliver a plenary presentation.

Providing Technology

During her plenary presentation, Cohen told conference participants that CAP was established in 1990 after someone pointed out to President Clinton that, if he truly supported hiring people with disabilities in the Department of Defense, he needed to provide funding for it. "It's hard to convince government agencies to hire people with disabilities first and then 'maybe' accommodate them later," said Cohen. Now, CAP provides assistive technology for workers with disabilities to any department or agency in the federal government, such as Braille notetakers for blind workers, teletypewriters (TTYs) for deaf employees, speech recognition software for people with dexterity disabilities, and talking dictionaries for workers with cognitive disabilities.

The government's current goal is to hire 32,000 people with disabilities in government jobs and to retain them as employees. CAP has already helped to increase employment of people with disabilities in the federal government, though some barriers remain. "I see people who say they won't hire people with disabilities," said Cohen. "I tell them, 'I guarantee you in writing that if you have the same people 10 years from now in 2013 that you have today, one of them will be disabled, maybe from a stroke, or diabetes, or cancer. [Hiring people with disabilities] is not about "them," it's about US.'"
Information about CAP is available on the web.

Training Future Workers

The Department of Defense doesn't just distribute technology. They also commit to hiring students with disability for three-month internships each summer through the Workforce Recruitment Program (WRP), Cohen said. So far, they have hired 220 college students with disabilities, including one who worked with the World Health Organization to help people in Iraq. Of these students, 12 percent have been Hispanic, and 50 percent have been hired into CAP's department, said Cohen.

Cohen urged conference participants to ask colleges to be included in the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities (HACU). HACU represents more than 300 colleges and universities in the United States, Puerto Rico, and abroad that are committed to increasing opportunities for Hispanic students to obtain higher education. HACU has helped students with scholarships, internship opportunities, and career development programs. "My point is to get the colleges involved," said Cohen. "If we have Hispanic students, then we can recruit them for the WRP." HACU's web site is at http://www.hacu.net.

Disability: Everyone's Issue

Cohen shared the story of one worker who had recently lost her fingers. She became excited when she learned about voice recognition software: without her fingers, she could no longer type at a regular keyboard. That woman was a September 11 survivor at the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia, Cohen told the audience. "She did not expect to be disabled," Cohen said. This story is one example of why everyone needs to be concerned with improving accessibility for people with disabilities, said Cohen. "I invite you, I challenge you, I ask you, to join me, us, in increasing participation," she said.

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