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Stories of Disability Employment Journeys

Employment is about more than just a paycheck. It is about maintaining independence, being a part of something larger than yourself, and giving back to your community. In the run-up to National Disability Employment Awareness Month 2019, ACL reached out to some of our grantees and stakeholders for stories about the employment journeys of people with disabilities. Below are just a few of the responses we received.

Turning a Love of Animals Into a Career

Jason with his wheelchair, AAC device and a sign inviting visitors to talk to him.
Jason with a sign that says: "Please stop and talk to me. I have some interesting information for you."

From Paraquad, a Center for Independent Living in Missouri:

This year, Jason will be celebrating his 20th year of employment at the Butterfly House! Jason started volunteering at the Butterfly House in 2001. As a volunteer he greeted guests and handed out pamphlets with activity information. Jason was offered a position at the Butterfly House shortly after he began volunteering. Jason currently rotates between various exhibits at the Butterfly House and provides guests with exhibit information. Jason utilizes his tablet to play his scripts for guests and last year Jason began independently creating his own scripts. Jason enjoys his independence and inputting his own scripts into his tablets without assistance from staff. Jason is hardworking, dedicated, and resourceful. Jason is very proud of his job at the Butterfly House and enjoys interacting with his co-workers and guests. Outside of work Jason likes to spend his time going to church, hanging with his girlfriend, going to camps in the summer, and volunteering at the Saint Louis Zoo.

"I Stopped Putting the World Can't in my Vocabulary"

For National Disability Employment Awareness Month, the National Disability Rights Network is highlighting stories of disability employment. Derek Alexander is a business consultant for the Delaware Division for the Visually Impaired.

"As soon as they find out you're blind, they start treating you differently," he says. "When I first found out that I was blind, I treated myself differently." He encourages other people with disabilities to "focus on what you can do."

Self-Employment: Two Brothers' Garden Grows

Jon was determined that his brother would not languish at home. He applied for and received a state grant that helps individuals with disabilities start their own businesses; Jeff's Corner Garden was born. They literally started their plot in a "corner" of a community garden under the interstate overpass. They acquired a refrigerated bicycle cart to deliver their produce to downtown restaurants. They grew quickly and opened a second location on Barrancas Avenue.

Jon says, "Fast forward to today; three-and-a-half years later and we've grown into this."

Watch the full report from WEAR TV.

Preparing Teenagers for College and a Career

The Next Steps Summer Program  is a program of The Ability Center, a Center for Independent Living in Ohio. During the five-week program, the students live on campus at The University of Toledo and work at a job site. 19-year-old Emily Strzelecki is spending part of her summer working in the Office of Accessibility at Lourdes University.

Watch an abc13 report about Emily's story.

Returning to Work at the Garage After a Car Accident

From Amanda and Ed:

In February 2011, Ed was involved in a serious rollover car accident in which he sustained a serious TBI, both lungs collapsed, nine broken ribs, left shoulder, arm and fingers broken. They removed the right side of his skull to reduce swelling and he was in a coma for six weeks. … He was left with approximately 50% use in his left arm but has learned to compensate. He did several weeks of physical therapy after waking up to learn to walk, talk, etc

In 2015 we started working with our states Office of Rehabilitative Services. He was able to have neuropsych and social security benefits counseling, and a vocation evaluation. ORS was awesome and we could not have gotten him back to work without them! They helped us figure out Social security's "Ticket to Work" program and all of that.

Ed is a mechanic and even though his short term memory was one of his main issues, his brain is an encyclopedia of cars and car engines and because he did not need supportive services, she was able to get him a vocation evaluation in a garage! In 2015 he spent two weeks "working for free" at the garage basically showing that he was able to work with people, follow the rules and be a valuable employee. That garage ended up hiring him as a part time employee and he stayed there for two years!

in 2017, he felt he was ready for full time employment and as of now he is working 40 hours plus 4 hours over time every Saturday. The garage he works at is aware of his brain injury. 

"The Experience Continues!": Transitioning Back to Work with a Social Media Internship


From Jivon:

On November 3, 2015, my life changed. I was in a car accident that led to a 12 week coma and loss of my ability to walk. Through healing and rehab I am, for the most part, the same as I was on November 2, 2015. However, that took some time and patience. I had a 17 year work history, which was interrupted by this incident. Fortunately, the District of Columbia’s Aspiring Professionals Program ended my three year break. I am now doing a 6-month paid internship with the DC Developmental Disabilities Council, with support from DC’s Rehabilitation Services Administration. I will be ensuring our social media stays up to date, getting to know the needs in our community to inform our future work, and keeping everyone at the office organized. I have immense gratitude for the participants and supporters of my work program. The experience continues!

Engaging Faith Communities to Promote Disability Employment

Putting Faith to Work is a model that congregations and communities can use to connect job seekers with disabilities to meaningful employment. Developed by collaborating University Centers for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities in Tennessee, Kentucky, Minnesota, and Texas and led by the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center, the project has been developed a step-by-step replication manual published in both English and Spanish.

Read the story of one congregation in Tennessee which is using the model. 

Helping Employers See the Potential of Workers with Disabilities

Tiffany Diaz, a college student with a visual disability, hopes to work at a law firm after graduation.

“Some people call it ambitious,” Diaz said, “Not ambitious in a positive way, but … they don’t think I can really do that but they say it’s cool I’m thinking of it.”

ABLE South Carolina, a Center for Independent Living, along with the South Carolina Disability Employment Coalition, is working to change that mindset through the “Hire Me SC” campaign.

Watch a WIS News 10 report on the campaign and visit the Hire Me SC site.

Project SEARCH Helps Lauren Put Computer Skills to Use

Lauren at her computer.

From Tennessee's Council on Developmental Disabilities:

Lauren has always wanted to develop valuable bonds with people in her community. She has looked for support through many different mediums to assist with different fears she has had with community interaction, employment, driving, and communication. While Lauren showed dedication in getting her driver’s license, she and her family realized she could benefit from services offered through the Employment and Community First CHOICES program.

Lauren was enrolled in December 2016. Employment and Community First CHOICES provided a platform for Lauren to enroll in Project SEARCH in October 2018, where she could pursue a goal of obtaining full-time work using her computer skills. Through this internship, Lauren experienced an office environment that exposed her to data entry tasks, where she was able to leverage her exceptional attention to detail. She became a leader in this program. At the end of Lauren’s Internship in Project SEARCH, she was offered a full-time position as a Referral Coordinator for Amerigroup TN.

Insisting on College and Employment After a Stroke

From Ashley:

I survived a hemorrhagic stroke due to a massive AVM bleed when I was 18 years old. I was unable to walk, talk, eat, or anything on my own at first, but I knew I had my whole life ahead of me. I was not up for wasting away, so I enrolled in community college just six months after the event. I tried to take one class that first year and fell on my face without any accommodations. I went to Vocational Rehabilitation soon after to see if they could offer any assistance. I was initially met with resistance and asked if going back to school was even a “realistic” expectation for me. Soon after, I thought that I was going in for a meeting about education and ended up at a meeting about placing me in a workshop. This did not work for me, and was not something I wanted to do. So, I left the meeting without filling out any paperwork, and feeling distraught that someone would question my goals like that. I went back to the community college and sought out the Outreach Counselor for advice. She assisted me with setting up proper accommodations and finding classes that fit with my rehabilitation schedule. I flourished and graduated with a nice GPA all without the assistance of Voc. Rehab. Thanks to getting the Pell Grant.

After I graduated with my Associates in Arts, I wanted to transfer a get my Bachelor’s Degree. The Pell Grant would not cover that, so I knew I had to make my case with VR again. So, I went back to my counselor and showed him my progress at a junior college and asked for assistance to get into a university. The only university near my rehabilitation doctors and therapists that offered the degree that I wanted was Park University, and they are more costly than a state university. I had to have them all write letters to keep me in the Kansas City area and send them to my VR Counselor. After he received them all, he authorized my full tuition to the university where I obtained my Bachelors in Social Work and Fitness and Wellness in 2017, and my Masters in Social Work in 2018.

When I graduated I had trouble finding work for about 3 months, and after applying for numerous positions, I received an email from the State of Missouri’s Mental Health Department for a position as a Service Coordinator. I nervously interviewed for the position and got it! I still do not drive, mind you, but I emphasized the use of public transportation. I was in that position for nine months, and then an intake position opened up and I decided to interview for that. I did get that position, and that’s now where I have been for a year. I am now talking to new people with disabilities every day, and getting them connected to different resources.

I am only sharing my story to let other individuals that have survived a brain injury, or that have any type of disability know that it is possible to achieve whatever you put your mind to. There will be obstacles, but the human spirit is resilient, just keep going forward.

"What Matters": More Stories of Employment from the Maryland Developmental Disabilities Council

What Matters (PDF) tells the stories of nine people with developmental disabilities who work and have meaningful days in their communities. Their stories illustrate the success that is possible when the right planning, support, and expectations are in place.

Last modified on 03/05/2021

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