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The consumer counselor relationship: an example of how well it can work.

In recent years, both statutory and regulatory changes have placed increasing emphasis on assisting consumers of vocational rehabilitation (VR) services to achieve high-quality and competitive employment. These changes resulted from a growing awareness of the capacities and rights of individuals with disabilities to live productive and meaningful lives in their own communities. While a number of factors impact the types of employment consumers obtain, the quality of the relationships between an individual with a disability and his or her counselor is a consistent variable. A longitudinal study conducted by the Rehabilitation Services Administration shows that competitive employment outcomes and higher earnings are directly linked to the positive relationship between the consumer and the counselor. (1) The interplay between these individuals can significantly influence the consumers' own expectations of themselves as well as the rehabilitation process. In this article, two individuals are highlighted--a consumer and a rehabilitation counselor--whose relationship embodies the positive characteristics requisite for a successful employment outcome. Their story illustrates the value of high expectations, mentors and a true commitment to enhancing the quality of life for people with disabilities.

Eight and one-half years ago, Jennifer Sheehy sustained a C-516 spinal cord injury, leaving her with only limited use of her upper body. At the time of her accident, she was studying marketing at Georgetown University's School of Business. During the early stages of her recovery, Sheehy believed that her professional ambitions and personal goals were unattainable. "I didn't even know employment was possible for someone with a disability like mine," she said.

Just three months after her injury, Sheehy met Jo Bond, a rehabilitation counselor with the District of Columbia Rehabilitation Services Administration. Bond challenged many of Sheehy's beliefs about her own abilities--especially those concerning her employability. Specifically, she encouraged Sheehy not to limit herself and to consider a variety of careers, including the one she was pursuing prior to her injury.

Bond understood that it was not enough to simply provide Jennifer with verbal encouragement and platitudes about the capacities of individuals with disabilities. Sheehy needed to meet and learn from other people who faced similar functional limitations and were also successfully employed. Consequently, the counselor arranged a meeting between Sheehy and a group of VR graduates.

Sheehy credits this network of consumers with helping her gain a sense of self-determination and for rekindling her ambition. This group of individuals demonstrated to her that people with disabilities could indeed succeed in the workplace. Moreover, they could offer her real-life solutions that were based on forestland experiences.

With Bond's high expectations, Sheehy's own drive and the encouragement of other consumers, Sheehy resolved to continue her studies in marketing at Georgetown University Bond's approach to rehabilitation not only included a positive and empowering philosophy of disability, but an immediate willingness to provide Sheehy with the supports and services she would need to succeed at school. The VR agency paid her tuition, supplied her with adaptive technology, and assisted with other supports she required. Sheehy noted that it was never a struggle to get Bond's buy-in regarding her needs and that "the only fighting Jo did was with the other entities identified as providers of services and equipment."

When Sheehy needed to determine which specific technologies and services she would need, once again, Bond encouraged Sheehy to seek out the advice of those best qualified to give relevant feedback--other people with disabilities. With the assistance of Bond, Sheehy did the preliminary research on a particular technology or provider, and then utilized the experience and expertise of other consumers to assist her during the decision making process.

After a stellar career at Georgetown, Sheehy struggled to find employers willing to hire a person with a disability. "I did not appreciate the depth of society's negative stereotypes towards people with disabilities until that point," she recalled.

Her personal experience and challenges, both at the university and with potential employers, compelled her to rethink her career objective. With her marketing background, she decided to use her skills to become an advocate for people with disabilities. Soon thereafter, she landed a job with the National Organization on Disability (NOD).

Bond continued to maintain contact with her, recognizing the need to provide support and follow through during the first tenuous months of employment. With a heavy caseload, it would have been easy for Bond to discontinue personal and regular contacts with an employed consumer. Yet her dedication to the individual consumer guided her actions and reinforced the importance of the counselor/consumer relationship.

In early 2001, Sheehy took a position with the Presidential Task Force on Employment of Adults with Disabilities, which was housed at the United States Department of Labor. Her reputation preceded her, and soon she was detailed to the White House. She served with the Domestic Policy Council, the president's handpicked experts on everything from transportation and education to health care and employment. Sheehy brought the disability perspective to the council and helped to facilitate positive changes to national policies that impact Americans with disabilities.

The detail ended in April 2002 and she returned to the Department of Labor to prepare the task force's final report. After a brief respite Sheehy began employment in November 2002 as special assistant to the assistant secretary, Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services, U.S. Department of Education.

At some point, she intends to pursue her marketing career in the private sector. She is confident about her future. While her own personal determination, intellect and talents are significant factors in her employment success, she chooses to share the credit with her rehabilitation counselor. Looking back, she recognizes that the self-advocacy skills and confidence she now possesses are due in large part to Bond's influence.

Sheehy has said that she would like to "thank vocational rehabilitation counselors everywhere, because you are the hope for people with disabilities. Most of the time, the people who come to you are at the depths of despair. If you don't have a job in this country, you're not anybody; so if people are coming to you to look for a job, they're coming to you to look for a meaningful life. That is a very serious responsibility to have, and I just want to thank the people who devote their lives to helping people with disabilities to find meaningful lives. I don't know if there is any greater role that you can play in the recovery of someone who has acquired a disability or the transition of someone who is born with a disability and who is finally moving into employment."

Bond feels that Sheehy deserves much of the credit for her successful rehabilitation: "Seeing Jennifer achieve her goals is the rewarding aspect of being a VR counselor. Jennifer was goal oriented and ambitious in the pursuit of her MBA and employment. I am pleased to have been a part of it and to know Jennifer."

By empowering Sheehy to make her own informed choices and to build a network of mentors and friends in the disability community, her counselor laid the foundation for a promising future. Their successful relationship not only impacted Sheehy's life, but through Sheehy it continues to impact the lives of countless other people with disabilities.


(1.) Longitudinal Study of the Vocational Rehabilitation Services Program (in draft). U.S. Department of Education.

Ms. Rigger is a vocational rehabilitation program specialist in the Basic State Grants Branch, Rehabilitation Services Administration, Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services, U.S. Department of Education, Washington, D.C.
COPYRIGHT 2003 U.S. Rehabilitation Services Administration
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
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Title Annotation:increasing quality of life for disabled persons through vocational rehabilitation
Author:Rigger, Jenn
Publication:American Rehabilitation
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 2003
Previous Article:Supporting individuals with disabilities in postsecondary education.
Next Article:Partners for youth with disabilities.

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