Disability rights activists say the government is not moving fast enough to remedy a precipitous drop in the numbers of federal employees with disabilities.

The Equal Employment Opportunities Commission (search) reported in July that the number of disabled federal workers generally fell by 12.5 percent in the last decade, while those with severe disabilities, who are supposed to be targeted for recruitment, dropped 20 percent.

Disability rights groups are dismayed "primarily because we thought [the Office of Personnel Management (search)] had worked very hard" on the issue, said Alan Dinsmore, co-chairman of the Consortium of People with Disabilities (search), a coalition of over 100 disability groups.

"We need to know what's not working," he said. Dinsmore said the coalition offered its expertise to OPM immediately after the release of the July report, but has yet to hear from the agency.

Federal officials concede a problem exists, but said they are taking steps to address it.

EEOC spokesman James Ryan did say that only 1.05 percent of the federal work force in 2003 was severely disabled: blind, deaf, paralyzed, missing limbs or suffering major mental illness or retardation. He could not provide specific numbers on the larger group of disabled workers Wednesday.

Ryan said that without further research, any explanation of the drop in the federal numbers is conjecture at best. The agency has begun a follow-up study, he said, but could not say when it will be finished. 

Last year, the EEOC issued new regulations requiring all federal agencies to report how many people with disabilities they employ and develop improved hiring plans. The deadline for those reports is Jan. 31, 2005, Ryan said.

OPM has also intensified its focus on removing obstacles for disabled job applicants. In May, OPM Director Kay Coles James loosened federal guidelines that required some applicants go to the Veterans Administration (search) to get their disability certified. Further reforms are in the works, an agency spokesman said.

The decline in disabled federal workers comes at a time when the number of Americans with disabilities that prevent or limit their ability to work has risen about 5 percent, from 12.7 million in the early 1990s to 13.5 million at the end of the decade, according to the U.S. Census Bureau (search).

At the same time, the federal workforce has shrunk by about 7 percent, which only partly accounts for the figures on disabled employees. Labor Department spokesman Michael Volpe said the decline may be due to budget cuts, hiring freezes and increased competition for disabled employees from the private sector.

Not likely, says Andrew J. Houtenville of the Employment and Disability Institute (search) at Cornell University.

Houtenville argues that a more likely cause of the decline is increased Social Security benefits for the disabled, along with employer concerns about the Americans with Disabilities Act (search). Businesses may be worried about hiring disabled employees and then being sued for wrongful termination if a person doesn't work out, he said.

He said the percentage of disabled people who are working in the private sector has fallen from 37 percent a decade ago to 32 percent today. With "a larger and larger pool of people with disabilities not working," he said, if the government really wants them, "they're there."

Capital News Service contributed to this report.