NAMI Comments on New Federal Rules on Hiring of People with Psychiatric Disabilities
May 16, 2000
Mary Lou Lindholm
Associate Director for Employment
Office of Personnel Management
1900 E St., NW
Washington, DC 20415-9000
RE:Proposed Rules, OPM 5 CFR Parts 3, 213 and 315 (Appointments of Persons With Psychiatric Disabilities), Federal Register, Vol. 65, Number 53, March 17, 2000.
Dear Ms. Lindholm:
I am pleased to offer comments on behalf of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI) on the March 17th Proposed Rule issued by the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) on the new hiring regulations for people with psychiatric disabilities.
With close to 220,000 members, NAMI is the nation's leading grassroots advocacy organization solely dedicated to improving the lives of persons with severe mental illnesses and their families. NAMI's efforts focus on support to persons with serious brain disorders and to their families; advocacy for nondiscriminatory and equitable federal, state, and private-sector policies; research into the causes, symptoms and treatments for brain disorders; and education to eliminate the pervasive stigma surrounding severe mental illnesses. NAMI has more than 1,200 state organizations and local affiliates in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, American Samoa, and Canada. NAMI local support groups can be found in virtually every community across the country.
One of the most formidable challenges for adults with serious brain disorders is getting and keeping a job. For most consumers with mental illness, achieving recovery through treatment is not supposed to be an end in and of itself. Rather, treatment and recovery are supposed to be a beginning in their effort to achieve dignity and independence that comes through employment. Unfortunately, for too many consumers, long-term employment and stability remains an elusive goal.
Recent estimates have placed the unemployment rate among adults with severe mental illnesses as high as 85 percent. While this alarming figure is due in large part to the disabling nature of serious brain disorders such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and major depression, there are many other complicated factors that keep consumers out of the job market. Most prominent among these are stigma, discrimination and a basic lack of understanding about mental illness among employers. While the Americans With Disabilities Act has been a tremendous help to many consumers in ending employment discrimination based upon psychiatric disability, we still have a long way to go to educate employers about the untapped human potential that exists among adults with severe mental illnesses.
NAMI is hopeful that OPM's proposed rules on federal hiring procedures will serve as a small, though significant step in the right direction. NAMI applauds President Clinton and OPM Director Lachance for moving forward on Executive Order 13124 that gave rise to these proposed regulations. NAMI believes that it is noteworthy that this Executive Order was signed as part of the White House Conference on Mental Health on June 7, 1999.
NAMI supports the overall thrust of both Executive Order and the proposed rules, i.e. to improve hiring procedures for federal workers with severe mental illnesses. We are hopeful that the new rules will send a strong signal to all employers that people with mental illness can work and should not be discriminated against.
At the same time, NAMI would like to offer two concerns about one of the provisions that OPM proposes around the Schedule A excepted appointing authority 213.3102(gg). This authority would permit a person with a mental illness who either served under a competitive service temporary appointment, or is certified by a State vocational rehabilitation office or the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, to be appointed for any job for which they qualify and meet suitability requirements.
Specifically, 213.3102(gg)(2) states: "Are certified by a State vocational rehabilitation counselor or a U.S. Dept. of Veterans Affairs Veterans Benefits Administration or Veterans Health Administration psychologist, vocational counselor, or psychiatrist, as likely to succeed in the performance of the duties of the position."
NAMI recognizes that this provision mirrors the language for people who have severe physical disabilities. However, in NAMI's view, this process is not appropriate for people with psychiatric disabilities for two reasons. First, information based on all the latest research indicates that predicting the "likely success in the performance of duties" is nearly impossible for people with severe mental illness. This speculative assessment, without more, is akin to "crystal ball gazing" and is a highly disfavored practice among specialists in psychiatric rehabilitation and employment. Further, NAMI believes that it is highly difficult, if not impossible, for anyone to "certify" that any person, regardless of whether they have a disability, is likely to succeed in a specific job.
Instead of relying on such speculative criteria and unreliable prospective assessment about work capacity, NAMI recommends that OPM consider amending Section 213.3102 to mirror the standard in the ADA. Specifically, NAMI would recommend the ADA allow as follows: replace "as likely to succeed" with "as likely to be able to perform the essential functions of the job, with or without reasonable accommodation."
Second, NAMI has concerns regarding the proposed rule's reliance on assessments by State vocational rehabilitation counselors and Veterans Affairs professionals. We believe that these assessments have historically ignored the fact that a large number of people with severe mental illnesses are served by community rehabilitation programs. In NAMI's experience, people with psychiatric disabilities face significant barriers to accessing State vocational rehabilitation programs. In order to broaden opportunities in federal employment for people with mental illnesses, NAMI recommends that the language in Section 213-3102(gg)(2) be amended to include the following: "are certified by a State vocational rehabilitation counselor, a vocational counselor in a community rehabilitation program."
NAMI believes that these changes will broaden the opportunity for real employment for more people with psychiatric disabilities. Again, thank you for the opportunity to comment on these proposed rules. NAMI looks forward to working with OPM to improve employment opportunities in the federal workplace for people with severe mental illnesses and to make the federal government a model employer for the public and private sectors to follow.
Laurie M. Flynn
President's Task Force on Employment of Adults With Disabilities
200 Constitutional Avenue, N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20210