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NEWS | Dec. 3, 2021

National Disability Employment Awareness Month speaker encourages ‘expanding the circle’ for people with disabilities

By NUWC Division Newport Public Affairs

With a highly decorated 35-year career in the Department of Defense (DOD), almost entirely focused on equality, diversity and inclusion, Dr. Claiborne Douglass Haughton Jr., shared his personal story of living with disabilities during a virtual presentation to the Naval Undersea Warfare Center (NUWC) Division Newport’s workforce on Oct. 21.

“I was born on a plantation in Jim Crow segregated Louisiana, with cerebral palsy and blindness in one eye,” Haughton said. “I wore ‘Coke bottle’ glasses that were so thick, that when I looked at a map I could see people up here in Providence waving at me.”

Haughton, president of Haughton Group LLC based in Arlington, Virginia, who retired in 2002 as acting Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Equal Opportunity, is now a motivational speaker and consultant. Division Newport hosted him as part of National Disability Employment Awareness Month, observed each October to recognize the contributions of people with disabilities to America's workplaces.

“Almost no one, regardless of your race, gender, religion, economic status, or background, will go through life without suffering from some form of physical or mental impairment,” Haughton said. “You are only one accident away from developing a disability. Those of us who are disabled are a constant and visible reminder of the frailty of each member of the human race. We are a minority that ‘temporarily’ able-bodied persons could join at a moment’s notice.”

People with disabilities are being terminated at a disproportionate rate than able-bodied people, according to a recent U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission report. For those who are employed, most are working menial jobs.

“Believe it or not, in 2021, the most difficult barrier that people with disabilities face is the painful reality that we’re looked upon as less than complete persons,” Haughton said. “This opinion is deeply rooted in ignorance and insensitivity, but many employers are still unaware of disabled persons’ potential. They still think that if you can't dress yourself, hear a telephone ring, or read a legal brief that you cannot work.”

Overcoming obstacles

Haughton shared the many adversities he faced as a child and emphasized the importance of fully including people with disabilities, something he learned from his guardian Marion Wells, as a 12-year resident at the Blundon Orphanage Home in Baton Rouge.

“Miss Wells was a white woman who was often ostracized for her work on behalf of African American children in Baton Rouge,” he said. “She took me to the United Cerebral Palsy Center in Baton Rouge for 10 years, which enabled me to get rid of the steel leg and arm braces so that I could walk.”

“What Miss Wells wanted for all of her children was for us to be judged fairly, and to be given a fair chance,” Haughton said.

After being denied from serving in the U.S. Army because of his disability, Haughton attended Dillard University in New Orleans on a vocational rehabilitation scholarship, graduating with a bachelor's degree in biology. He started his career as a quality assurance trainee in 1967 with the Defense Logistics Agency in Indianapolis, Indiana, and quickly rose in the ranks being promoted to quality assurance packaging specialist.

“Struggling with the dual headwinds of discrimination based upon race and disability, he decided to switch careers and soon began his journey seeking to advance equal employment opportunity, or EEO, by becoming an EEO specialist,” said Don Gomes, Division Newport’s EEO specialist, as he introduced Haughton.

Haughton was first responsible for reviewing the affirmative action programs for federal contractors. Despite further barriers, he went from an entry-level trainee to a top-level supervisor (GS-16) in just 12 years, becoming one of the first African American charter members of the Senior Executive Service (SES). As the DOD principal director for civilian EEO programs, he served as the ranking career SES equity, diversity, and inclusion official at the Pentagon for 23 years.

In 1990 the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) became law with an intent to provide access, jobs, justice and transportation for people with disabilities.

“We must struggle always to establish and sustain the basic rights of all Americans, and specifically for the 57 million Americans with disabilities,” Haughton said. “The DOD started to develop programs and carry out disability employment programs two decades before the passage of the ADA. I don't believe that there is another federal agency with a broader and better array of programs for people with disabilities.”

Haughton was leading that charge and he said his most rewarding achievement is being known as the “Father of the Department of Defense Disability Program.”

The disability program was built on five pillars – creating the policy, staffing the organization, building an awards program, creating a college recruitment program, and funding a DOD Computer/Electronics Accommodation Program.  

After initially being denied hiring for a disability program manager position, Haughton took matters into his own hands.

“I quickly learned that creativity is not thinking outside the box – it is the discovery that there isn't a box,” he said. “So I did my homework on disability matters because you can't teach what you don't know, and you can't lead where you won't go. I performed the work myself for two years, in addition to my SES leadership duties.”

In 1983 Haughton was permitted to fill the disability program manager position, which went to the late Judy Gilliam, who “due to an accident at a higher level of quadriplegic,” used a motorized wheelchair. Haughton remembers her fondly.

“I love this quote by Judy, she said, ‘I can't trust myself, I can't walk up a flight of stairs, I can't pick up a glass of water, but I can work,’” he said. “And she demonstrated that inspiration starts with aspiration and was quickly promoted from my mentee to a GS-15 position, and she did an outstanding job for me for 19 years.”

In 1984, the Disability College Recruitment Program was founded by another champion pioneer, Paul Meyer. Haughton and his team expanded on that program, which is now called the Workforce Recruitment Program, or WRP, and has hired more than 7,500 students with disabilities for summer and permanent jobs.

Haughton paused to recognize Division Newport’s Michelle Eddy, who is the manager of the Disability Employment Program, for winning an Outstanding Recruiter Award as part of the 2020–21 DOD WRP Awards and urged the audience to help her continue using the WRP to achieve the Division’s disability program hiring goals.

Prior to originating the DOD Computer/Electronics Accommodation Program, it was Gilliam who taught Haughton about reasonable accommodation through her own needs to do her job effectively. They pioneered accommodations such as twin voice-activated computers, one at the Pentagon and the other in her nursing home, a “flexi-place” policy allowing her to work at home during inclement weather (better known today as telework), and free, accessible wheelchair taxi service.

“Yes, Judy was living large at the Pentagon,” he said. “The groundbreaking experience to get her the reasonable accommodation she needed fueled our share of dedication to carry out my vision to get reasonable accommodations for all DOD employees with disabilities to do their jobs. To take away the excuse from any manager or supervisor who would say, ‘Yes, I would hire a person with disability, but I can't afford the accommodation.’”

In the early 1990s, the DOD granted Haughton and his team $10.7 million and four personnel spaces to launch the Computer/Electronic Accommodations Program (CAP). To date, CAP has made more than 150,000 purchases to provide accommodations for employees in the DOD and across the federal government.

“Thanks to countless dedicated men and women, the DOD has come a long way in the struggle to improve opportunity and inclusion for individual disabilities,” Haughton said. “But lest we relax or feel complacent, for the eye of the hurricane still has not passed out to sea. We still have work to do because Americans with disabilities, including veterans, make up almost one-fifth of our population.”

Haughton urged the workforce to achieve disability hiring goals, and to share the responsibility for getting this inclusion work done.

“Responsibility to ensure the inclusion of people with disabilities in the workplace is first with the agency head,” said Haughton. “Secondly, it rests with every manager and supervisor, and it rests with all of us.”

NUWC Division Newport is a shore command of the U.S. Navy within the Naval Sea Systems Command, which engineers, builds and supports America’s fleet of ships and combat systems. NUWC Newport provides research, development, test and evaluation, engineering and fleet support for submarines, autonomous underwater systems, undersea offensive and defensive weapons systems, and countermeasures associated with undersea warfare.

NUWC Newport is the oldest warfare center in the country, tracing its heritage to the Naval Torpedo Station established on Goat Island in Newport Harbor in 1869. Commanded by Capt. Chad Hennings, NUWC Newport maintains major detachments in West Palm Beach, Florida, and Andros Island in the Bahamas, as well as test facilities at Seneca Lake and Fisher's Island, New York, Leesburg, Florida, and Dodge Pond, Connecticut.

Join our team! NUWC Division Newport, one of the 20 largest employers in Rhode Island, employs a diverse, highly trained, educated, and skilled workforce. We are continuously looking for engineers, scientists, and other STEM professionals, as well as talented business, finance, logistics and other support experts who wish to be at the forefront of undersea research and development. Please connect with NUWC Division Newport Recruiting at this site- https://www.navsea.navy.mil/Home/Warfare-Centers/NUWC-Newport/Career-Opportunities/ and follow us on LinkedIn @NUWC-Newport and on Facebook @NUWCNewport.