Anne: On today’s episode we have reflections from Commissioner Jim Rothrock. He’s with us today with his top considerations on Vocational Rehabilitation and disability employment.
Rick: Anne are you ready for a big inspiration showcase?
Anne: You bet Rick.
Rick: Then let’s roll it.
BACKGROUND MUSIC & “…VR Workforce Studio…”
Announcer: VR Workforce Studio, inspiration education and affirmation at work. Welcome to another episode as we open up the VR Workforce Studio to champion the courageous stories of Vocational Rehabilitation from individuals with disabilities.
“…Listen to our amazing stories about the disability employment journeys….”
“…Here us describe our pathways through the challenge…”
“…And feel to join and share our inspiration as we overcome disabilities to go to work…”
Announcer: We’ll also meet the champions of business and industry who hire people with disabilities.
Employer Quote: “…I can say beyond the shadow of a doubt that some of our best employees have disabilities…”
And hear from the VR professionals who have dedicated their lives and careers to helping individuals with disabilities go to work. Now here’s the host to the VR Workforce Studio Rick Sizemore along with executive director of Wilson Workforce Rehabilitation Center Foundation, Anne Hudlow.
Computer: 3, 2, 1
Rick: Welcome to another episode of the VR Workforce studio podcast. First of all, we appreciate you taking time getting involved with the show and hear about the brave and courageous souls of Vocational Rehabilitation. Anne, it’s going to be extremely hard to introduce today’s guest because our audience of course has known him very well Jim has lived with a significant disability for over five decades and is now approaching his fifth decade in service to others helping them overcome their disabilities and find careers. He is a friend to anyone with a disability. After a life of service he now leads the Virginia Department for Aging and Rehabilitative Services. Welcome Commissioner Rothrock.
Jim: Well, good morning. How are you’ll doing in the Valley?
Rick: We’re doing well.
Anne: We’re doing well. Thanks for joining us today. You know Jim I admire, I’ve seen you so many times and have admired you and your work for so long and yet I’m not sure we have had the opportunity like this before so let me just thank you for coming on the podcast. You know we are really thrilled to have this opportunity.
Jim: Oh I’m thrilled to be on one of the hottest things going. (laughs) I must admit I still really don’t understand how it all works but I’m delighted to be jumping on board with you guys you both have… what do they say… “a Number 1 with the bullet” on the charts.
Rick: (laughs) Things have been going well.
Jim: They have.
Rick: Well, Jim, you know your story has been told so many times, ahh, it’s really well known. But just in case you have not heard Jim’s story, you can go to our library – it’s Episode 8: the Jim Rothrock Story – out at VR Workforce Studio. It’s all about Jim’s sledding accident as a teenager and how he survived that and has gone onto a career in Voc. Rehab. Jim you are such a powerful figure in VR. What we would like to do is get some of your perspectives on disability employment. So let’s start with things that you think someone with a disability should consider.
Jim: Rick, first and foremost, in this day and time we see so many individuals with any kind of disability find themselves on some type of Social Security payments whether it be SSI or SSDI and maybe their life issues are being taken care of. And it looks like if they start thinking about work, there is the potential for them to lose the very basic services they are getting. And I would just encourage more and more with disabling conditions to understand the full value of work. I know in my own experience work has been the opportunity afforded to me to contribute, to meet others, to learn and grow – making money is important, you know, when you underscore that. But work is the way we introduce ourselves. I believe Freud or Adler once noted that the three main things in life are love, work, and friends. Whenever you look at any kind of psychology or even philosophy, the importance of work is underscored as a really significant element. I remember in the 70s, I think, Studs Turkle wrote a book on working that told the story of America through looking at hundreds of individuals who worked and told about what they did day to day in their job. Being able to contribute to work and realize the benefits from work is something that I really think that all individuals with disabilities should consider. Particularly now that we are so much more well-equipped to help people with significant disabilities that two decades ago weren’t even considered to have the potential to work. Now we can take advantage of some of the things that you’ll are demonstrating at WWRC. Issues – advancements that we have been able to see in job coaching and technology, my goodness we have what we consider to be potential to really engage. You know there’s a rambling of a couple. I will also note that an individual will need to be able to communicate effectively with the employer, letting needs be understood by the employer. Again in my career I have seen people who, wanting to hide their disability for fear that as soon as their employer found out about their disability they would lose their job. Well, that unfortunately could happen. I think it’s a very small minority of times that would happen today. But employers needs to make you, the employee with the disability more successful as they need to know what all individuals who might work for them need to become successful. And I think that is another important thing. And then finally the role of just really hard work can’t be undersold. I work with a large number of people in our organization, and the ones that are distinguished among all those thousand or so people without respect to their disability I might add… But you can clearly tell who the hard workers are. Ones that are very serious about their work and go about it with a degree of excellence as their goal. And these individuals are the ones that an employer can count on, and whether they have a disability or not, becomes irrelevant to the equation. The fact that they can present that hard work, that solid work ethic, is the determiner to whether they are embraced by the business or agency. Keys to success that I would share with anybody that had a disabled condition that was considering work.
Rick: Well you really hit on that thing of people working hard and sometimes the experience here at Wilson is people haven’t had a lot of opportunity and they just get started. And that whole process of getting started really gives them the motivation to do more and more and more.
Jim: Yeah, exactly. And things begin to open up not only in the workplace but another pet peeve of mine is that the study that shows if you look at all the universe of disabled individuals one of the common factors defining that population is social isolation. And anytime an individual is socially isolated there is a spiraling of many factors. One of which is just basic overall health. You become sick, quote-unquote, sick if you aren’t engaged with other people. And what better place to be engaged with other people on an 8-5 or some shift work, but anyway, during a chunk of the day, say 1/3 of your day than being in the workplace. That’s where you make friends, you see other people, you’re exposed to other cultures, you’re exposed to the different ways that other people think and in so doing you can begin to flesh out what truly is you based on not only just yourself but the exposure you have to the universe of people around you.
Rick: Great words of wisdom from a man who has seen this for a long time with a lot of people.
Anne: Absolutely. And Jim I appreciate your powerful reflections on the importance on the value of work. I think a lot of times we go out to work in the morning and you don’t think anything of it. But what it does for our lives and the positive impact it has on our lives and others is important to remember. So thank you for that. Let’s turn our attention to the VR and Business communities now. Jim, what are you top messages to VR professionals and businesses?
Jim: First you know in years ago we really preached to employers businesses, corporations, agencies should hire people with disabilities because it was the quote-unquote right thing to do. Or, it was a way they could show their social, corporate consciousness. Or, any number kind of social working types of things that are a very soft reasons… and, that dog just don’t hunt anymore. It’s really a situation now where employers should hire qualified individuals for the jobs they can do time after time after time. We see individuals who have an array of disabilities, not just physical disabilities like myself, but people who are living on the autism spectrum, people with intellectual disabilities, people with mental illness, people with past substance abuse problems. People that don’t learn the same way the rest of the population learns. But these people demonstrate the very, very best and make solid employers. At Wilson we’re seeing in the manufacturing curriculum individuals that are given the opportunity to be specifically trained on skills that we know are needed in manufacturing and industrial environments. And the key determinant is not the fact that the agency is doing something good, not the fact that they’re “doing the right thing”, but they’re hiring a qualified employee. And, I think that is the main, main thing employers ought to see. Get over the “I’m here to try to help people out and I can afford to take a person with a disability and put him in my payroll for minimum wage and abide by him or her for the social good of things”. That doesn’t play anymore. These individuals that come out of Wilson and that come out of our Vocational Rehabilitation system have skills and abilities and that is what should be the real reasons that they are considered for work. I would also have employers who they see some individual with a disability have high expectations. Expect success. Many times again if you see somebody that is somewhat different you might not be able to hold that individual at the same expectations that you would have for other people. And that is just patently wrong. Having high expectations of your employees has time immemorial been demonstrated to be the reason you realize success. If you expect success you get success. If you expect failure, yep, you are going to find failure. That is another reason around really having high expectations. And finally this might be tough. It’s really about honest communication. I know in situations that I personally have been in; it’s difficult many times to know whether you are doing the right thing, or doing a job well. And that’s irrelevant to the fact that I use a wheelchair to get around. Employers should be able to provided really solid feedback to all of their employees. And, I think there is a hidden assumption held by some employers that the quote-unquote handicapped individual – I use that world intentionally – that the handicapped individual can’t take the critique. They’re like anybody else and they need feedback on how they’re doing. They will never improve unless they know how they are doing today and hopefully demonstrate a path for improvement. And that is the basic fundamental for a supervisor to work with all their employees to develop that path to success and give them honest and direct feedback through that process is the way that their work is improved. Now I realize that this is basic management 101 that all employers ought to do… but, then again I’m familiar with enough situations where an individual with a disability has not been given that feedback …because you don’t quote-unquote hurt them and then the end result is that the individual is harming the entire workforce because they’ve not been given feedback. And, realistically some individuals with disabilities aren’t going to be able to cut it and they need to be treated fairly. And I would just encourage people to communicate effectively, have high expectations, and give feedback and hire people with disabilities fundamentally for the right reason. You’ll see, in listening to my yammering, that communication is the key and I think back to one of my favorite movies of my youth Cool Hand Luke, when they had stated twice in the movie “What we have here is a failure to communicate.” So often in any kind of business exchange or in fact human exchange that inability to communicate is effectively the failure. When you can assure that communication can flow well you are much better off in so many situations.
Anne: Right. That is true. Rick, we have talked a lot about how employers are just so impressed with the energy and the drive that people with disabilities are bringing to the workplace, so I think that echoes what commissioner Rothrock is saying here that it’s a positive thing.
Rick.: Jim, you have been involved in helping hundreds and thousands of people in that pathway to a meaningful career. Do you have a favorite story?
Jim: Yeah I remember back in the 70s when I was actually working at WWRC. We had a young man who was significantly below quote-unquote a normal IQ. He was a delightful fellow, as jolly as jolly could ever be. He really enjoyed bowling at the bowling alley at the center, but he didn’t have a bowling ball, bowling bag, and bowling shoes. And he couldn’t afford them, so it became my mission in life to somehow correlate his need for bowling shoes, ball, and bag to the end goal of getting him a job. And it got turned down, oh Lord, several times my request to buy about $100 in bowling materials at the time was turned down but turned down but turned down. But I was damned and determined to allow this to occur but sure enough finally after my pleadings, we were finally successful, and successful in two ways. One, we were able to get the bowling ball, bowling shoes and bowling bag and it was real. A nice red bowling ball with red white shoes and a matching red white bag, and the young man loved to bowl. He could not keep score at all, that was way too advanced for his math skills, but he enjoyed rolling the ball down the lane and knocking the bowling pins down. He thoroughly enjoyed that, and just the accomplishment of that he got out of that was amazing to see. And, the guy did go back to Richmond – I was fortunate to follow him for a while – got a job in a cafeteria somewhere here in Richmond and worked a goodly number of years and his family later on told me that they still enjoyed taking him out to bowling night every now and again. And, I just remember seeing the satisfaction that I took from being an incredibly small part in that young fellow’s work success – but, more importantly I enjoyed being part of his bowling success.
Anne: (Light giggle) It’s great.
Jim: Work leads up to those things in life that we enjoy so many times.
Rick: I had to justify that to get my superiors to allow me to spend $100 on his bowling ball.
Jim: And now you’re commissioner.
Rick: And if anybody everybody asked me if I would approve somebody buying a bowling ball I would do it in a New York minute.
Jim, Anne: (Laughs)
Rick: Well that is phenomenal. I have to ask you this one too. One of my favorite Jim Rothrock quotes. I wrote it down the day I heard it is: “never confuse being alert with being awake”. What roles does that play in your life because you always seem like the person who is after that next opportunity and looking for the edge and pushing forward for people with disabilities.
Jim: Well, I guess one thing that I have tried to do is make sure that we don’t lapse into comfort. Looking back at our Voc. Rehab. program and some of the things we done with our Wilson Staff, every now and then you need to come up with something hopefully new, innovative, and empowering that’s different and you need to look at opportunities that hopefully are not disruptive but at the same time are equally challenging to change things up a little bit and not allow people to get into that comfort zone which many times is called a groove. Well that’s why somebody might be awake but they aren’t really engaged in what they are doing. One thing I try to do is to make sure everybody is awake and engaged to do the best possible job they can do.
Rick: One of the joys of having had a relationship and watching you speak publically is your wit; and your ability to come up with stuff like that on the spur of the moment. We were in a meeting and that just rolled out of your mouth and I don’t think you even realized at the time what a powerful statement it was, but it has been a defining phrase in my own life and my own personal experience here at Wilson so I thank you for that little joy of wisdom and it will remain a battlecry in my own career – I hope – for as long as I’m able to keep going. You know we are fortunate a couple years ago to have one of the buildings named after you. Do you recall that day and what you felt like in what had to be a couple hundred people when the building was named in your honor? Do you remember that moment? Could you take us back and tell us what it felt like?
Jim: Yeah, I mean that, (emotional) excuse me I’m even tearing up now, that’s probably one of the best days in my life. It was unexpected, although it wasn’t a surprise. The day there, and having got honor bestowed upon me, and then having so many of the people around at that day from uh, from Martinsville my home, to kids I grew up with, to a bunch of my college roommates, to my family, to my son and his family, and his child, having those people around…it’s an honor that so few individuals are able to fully appreciate and I’m still awed by it and whenever I drive up there it’s a little daunting to see the letters on the wall. It kind of gives me, I guess uh, a double-shot of a very warm fuzzy feeling yet a very awe inspiring moment just to drive up towards the center and see those letters and to hear it referred to and… To Rick, and all those people at the center that bestowed that honor upon me, I’m forever in your debt and appreciate it and it has made me work even harder to try to justify the naming honor that you had. Again, that is one of the top five for sure.
Anne: Well Commissioner Rothrock you deserve that.
Jim: Ahh, you’re sweet.
Anne: You deserve that.
Rick: What do you think is ahead for Voc. Rehab. in our country?
Jim: It’s a challenge. I think that we, in Virginia, due largely to the work that you and your colleagues in Voc. Rehab. have done – both at the center and across the state in our field operations – clearly have been able to demonstrate that if we are given an opportunity to better understand what an employers need, we can fill those quote-unquote job orders with qualified individuals that present some amazing challenges as it relates to their disability. And as long as we can continue to have that relationship with our workforce partners I think that we are on good ground and we’re just really beginning to develop and nurture that relationship. And again Rick your leadership in that regard and the award you are being given by the national organization later this Fall demonstrate the work that ya’ll have done…
Rick: Jim, we deeply appreciate the work that you have done throughout your life and continue to do with individuals with disabilities and it’s been a tremendous honor to have you on our podcast. Thank you very much.
Anne: Thank you commissioner. We appreciate your time.
Jim: It’s been a pleasure talking with you’ll and keep up the good work and keep these podcasts coming.
Anne: Thank you
Rick: Thanks. Anne, this has been one of my favorite episodes of all time.
Anne: You took the words right out of my mouth. I agree with you. It was a wonderful interview and we appreciate Commissioner Rothrock’s time.
Rick: If you’d like to contact us, check the show notes at vrworkforcestudio.com. We’d always love to hear from you. And, until next time, I’m Rick Sizemore…
Anne: And, I’m Anne Hudlow.
Rick: … with the courageous stories of Vocational Rehabilitation.
Announcer: Support for the Foundation’s production and distribution of the VR Workforce Studio comes from CVS Health, Dominion Power, Virginia Manufacture’s Association, Jessie Ball-Dupont Fund, and AmeriCare Plus.