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Navy Leaders’ Shift Perceptions and Assist Fellow Disabled Personnel to Successful Careers

By NSWCDD Corporate Communications | Nov. 20, 2015

DAM NECK and DAHLGREN, Va. – The Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA) Disability Program Manager and a severely injured Navy wounded warrior who returned to active duty shared their stories, challenges, and goals at National Disability Employment Awareness Month events Oct. 28-29.

“I’m able to make an immediate impact by offering qualified individuals with disabilities quality careers,” NAVSEA Disability Program Manager Joe Aukward told military and civilian personnel at the two Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division (NSWCDD) sites. 

Chief Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) Technician Joe Miller – recipient of the Purple Heart and a Bronze Star with Valor – joined him at the first observance held at Dam Neck.

“We must remove the stigma of disability and shift perceptions of what disabled people can accomplish if given the proper support,” said Miller, who was severely injured by a land mine in Afghanistan after spending four hours clearing 22 other people out of a mine field. 

Miller recounted his rehabilitation treatment at Bethesda Walter Reed Medical Center where he persevered to walk again in 31 days. He returned to work within three months, successfully making his case to remain on active duty, and is preparing to head out on another deployment.

The EOD Chief combined humor with show and tell to discuss his disability, quickly eliminating any pre-conceived bias that listeners may have. If asked, he proudly pulls up his uniform pant leg to show his prosthetic leg and indicates how he has adjusted his body mechanics to tackle the many physical challenges that he must overcome. Miller calls this “active communication” which he believes is essential for supervisors who may have difficulty starting the conversation with their disabled employees. 

“The fact is almost all of us will encounter a disability, whether short or long term at some point in our lives,” said Capt. Eric Tapp, Combat Direction Systems Activity Dam Neck commanding officer. “People with disabilities are a diverse group that includes people with sensory, physical, and mental conditions. It is a group anyone can become a member of at any time, but at work it’s what people can do that matters.”

Aukward gradually lost his sight, becoming legally blind in his mid-twenties, but became a champion for others with disabilities who want to work. 

”The unemployment rate for Americans with a disability is 70 percent,” he said. “That is too high. It’s our duty to ensure those Americans have employment options.”

Aukward – passionate about educating the disabled and those without a disability – informed the military and civilian audiences about NAVSEA programs, such as the reasonable accommodation program, designed to support disabled employees throughout their careers.

“My challenge with increasing employment opportunities is to reach out to the targeted men and women with disabilities, he said. “To reach this challenge, NAVSEA leadership is partnering with organizations to help obtain the hiring goal.”

Aukward established a program at NAVSEA – which includes NSWCDD and all NAVSEA warfare center divisions – with three goals: increase employment opportunities for persons with disabilities; educate the workforce to encourage a culture of full inclusion; and to ensure employees with disabilities have the resources they need to be fully successful.  

“As we increase employment opportunities, we are educating our workforce to embrace a climate of full inclusion,” he said. “For our current workforce of persons with disabilities, NAVSEA offers a robust reasonable accommodation process. Two examples are sign language interpreters and screen readers software.”

Aukward spent time speaking with employees individually about the NAVSEA Disability Program at both events.

“We both agreed that more proactive and interactive approaches need to be taken to ensure disabled veterans are aware of available accommodations, and that their disabilities do not limit them,” said Marietto Jeffries, NSWCDD Veterans Employment Special Emphasis Program Manager. “I believe that my own disabilities do not mean that I am disabled or incapable of performing my job and that with reasonable accommodation I am capable and better equipped to succeed.”