Gov. Mark Dayton has directed state agencies to hire more employees with disabilities, seeking to reverse an alarming decline in the state's hiring of disabled people.

The governor this week signed an executive order that directs state agencies to increase employment of people with disabilities to 7 percent by 2018, up from 3.2 percent in 2013.

The directive is a response to concerns that Minnesota has fallen behind much of the nation in the hiring and recruiting of people with physical and developmental disabilities. It also is seen as a way for Dayton to gain support among the nearly one in five Minnesotans who have a disability, defined as a physical or mental condition that limits a person's ability to perform a major activity.

In recent weeks, the Dayton administration has come under criticism from disability advocates for the slow pace of implementing reforms that would help thousands of disabled Minnesotans move out of institutions, such as group homes, and into their own homes.

"It's a slam dunk, politically," Galen Smith, co-facilitator of the Twin Cities chapter of ADAPT, a disability rights group, said of the governor's order. "This shows leadership while acknowledging the problem."

In Minnesota, the employment of disabled people by state agencies has not increased since Congress passed the landmark Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990, and is now below neighboring states. Iowa and Wisconsin have disability hiring levels of 4.4 percent and 5.8 percent, respectively. Minnesota's new target of 7 percent would still put the state below its 1999 level, when 10.1 percent of state workers identified themselves as having a disability.

Beyond the 7 percent hiring mandate, the governor's order requires a series of other reforms designed to give disabled people more access to state jobs. This includes requiring all state hiring managers and human resources personnel to undergo training on the recruitment and hiring of people with disabilities, and to report their progress every quarter. The order also directs the Minnesota Management and Budget office to develop ways for employees to update their disability status.

"We think this will make a huge difference at the state level, and hopefully spread to other companies and businesses," said Alan Parnes, a member of the Commission of Deaf, DeafBlind and Hard of Hearing Minnesotans, one of about eight state councils and advocacy groups that helped craft the executive order.

The move by Dayton mirrors actions taken in recent years by other state governors and President Obama. Governors in California, Delaware, Florida, Ohio, Oregon and Washington state, among others, have signed similar orders requiring state agencies to increase hiring of people with disabilities, and in 2010 Obama called on the federal government to hire 100,000 people with disabilities within five years.

According to the U.S. Census, approximately 56.7 million Americans — or 19 percent of the population — had a disability as of 2010, with more than half of them reporting a disability that is severe. The disabilities range from difficulty hearing, seeing and walking up stairs to more complicated cognitive disorders such as autism. The national unemployment rate for people with disabilities is 13.3 percent, or more than twice the national average.

But as the early civil rights struggle to pass the ADA faded from memory, so did the focus on the recruiting and hiring of people with disabilities, said Roberta Opheim, the state ombudsman for mental health and developmental disabilities. "The attitude became, 'Well, we have the ADA so we don't have to worry anymore,' " Opheim said. "That doesn't affect my department or my division. There just wasn't a lot of emphasis on inclusive employment."

By the early 2000s, a number of large Minnesota state agencies stopped tracking the hiring and recruiting of people with disabilities, and the numbers began to decline.

In some cases, state agencies had been placing restrictions on certain jobs, requiring "oral communications skills" or "the ability to hear," discouraging deaf or blind people from applying even when accommodations could be made, said Mary Hartnett, executive director of the state commission for the deaf.

Late last year, the Dayton administration unveiled an ambitious multiyear road map — known as the "Olmstead Plan" — to expand Minnesota's range of community and home-based options for people living with disabilities and mental illnesses. The plan called for transitioning thousands of people out of state-run hospitals and other institutions and into less restrictive environments.

However, implementation has been beset by delays. Last month, a federal court monitor said county social workers across Minnesota have yet to be trained on how to provide individual support for disabled people moving out of institutions and into their own homes or communities, a key component of the plan.

"I feel like there is momentum in the right direction, but it's not enough just to have goals," Smith said. "You have to actually enforce those goals and hold people accountable when they're not met."

Chris Serres • 612-673-4308

Twitter: @chrisserres