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Disability requirements for federal contractors — and why you should go beyond Section 503

By Jamie Studenroth

July 15, 2020

If you’re a federal contractor, you’re probably aware of Section 503 — the law that requires federal contractors to proactively employ people with disabilities. Federal contractors must track progress toward a workforce where at least 7 percent of employees are people with disabilities.

Starting this year, the government will be placing a particular emphasis on this area. They’ve announced that they’ll be launching focused contractor audits, expanding their disability inclusion resources for employers, and selecting businesses to highlight.

This push presents an opportunity for your business to stand out. By making the choice to think beyond compliance, you can be in sync with the government’s priorities. But you’ll also be opening the door to a new way of working that will help every area of your company. 

After all, disability inclusion encourages flexibility, creativity, and a people-first approach. With external factors changing by the day, a strong disability inclusion program is more crucial than ever.

So how can your business go beyond the Section 503 audit requirements to truly excel at disability inclusion? Here are a few places to start.

Build the hiring plan that every federal contractor should have

Every federal contractor’s disability inclusion program should have a structured plan to create a talent pipeline. Make sure you don’t lose qualified candidates to your competition.

Create guidelines to address potential barriers. Here are a few ideas:

Do proactive outreach. For example, you could partner with disability employment services to connect with candidates. Position your business at job fairs and networking events for people with disabilities. And find ways to send the message that your company is inclusive of people with disabilities.

Support your people managers

While you’re focused on your Section 503 audit, don’t forget that managers and team leads are crucial to the success of your disability inclusion program.

But managers have many competing responsibilities. And most don’t have a background in disability inclusion. So give your managers the resources they need to effectively make your plans a reality. 

For example, make disability inclusion training a priority. Educate managers about the benefits of going beyond the requirements of Section 503. You could also hold regular lunch-and-learns to keep inclusion top of mind.

Encourage self-identification

Federal contractors are required to invite all of their employees to self-identify as an individual with a disability during pre-hire, post-hire, and every five years. 

But the reasons to encourage self-identification go beyond checking off an audit requirement.

For one, you’ll be letting employees know that they are welcome and valued. Many employees with disabilities worry that they’ll face stigma if they talk about their disability at work. Making open conversations about disability a normal part of your work environment will help employees feel more comfortable and confident.

Encouraging self-identification will also contribute to the success of your employee resource group for people with disabilities. When employees with disabilities are encouraged to self-identify, they’ll be more likely to join the group and take advantage of its mentorship and support opportunities. (If you don’t already have an employee resource group for people with disabilities, consider starting one.)

Another big benefit of self-identification is that it will make employees more likely to ask for accommodations. That means they’ll have the right tools to do their best work.

Support all employees and candidates with disabilities

To make your disability inclusion program as strong as it can be, make sure it’s part of an intersectional approach to inclusion. 

A specific focus on disability inclusion is a critical part of any diversity, equity, and inclusion program. Similarly, your company should dedicate efforts towards the active hiring and inclusion of groups such as people of color and LGBTQ+ employees. 

More and more, employees want to work for companies that lead the way when it comes to inclusion. And employees who can bring their whole selves to work will be more likely to thrive. 

So show them that your organization embraces difference. After all, every company is made up of a diverse group of people with a variety of strengths and talents. When the people can thrive, the company will thrive, too.


Understood offers this content to readers as an informational service. We don’t provide legal advice, and we can’t guarantee the accuracy or suitability of the content for a particular purpose.

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