Brain Injury Awareness Month and the Road to Employment. Olivia Zerbinati talks about the road to employment with a brain injury.

Episode 122 VR Workforce Studio

Brain Injury Awareness Month and the Road to Employment

Olivia Zerbinati talks about the road to employment with a brain injury.

National Clearinghouse of Rehabilitation Training Materials

March is Brain Injury Awareness Month! There are many resources available on the NCRTM about brain injury to support learning and professional development.

  • The Business Side of Things: Employment and Brain Injury Podcast (Disability Employment Technical Assistance Center (DETAC))- This podcast features a panel discussion from an employer perspective on challenges and successes in acquiring and maintaining employment. National labor market trends and practices are shared as well as challenges businesses face with hiring and job retention. Recommendations for those who have sustained brain injuries related to seeking employment will be discussed and a personal journey from injury to work is shared.
  • Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) 101 (VRTAC-QE)- This training offers a comprehensive understanding of Traumatic Brain Injuries (TBIs) by providing a diagnostic overview for effective assessment, addressing psychosocial factors essential in working with TBI patients, and exploring vocational rehabilitation considerations tailored to the unique challenges faced by individuals with TBIs. It equips participants with valuable insights and strategies for empathetic support and successful workforce reintegration. 1 CRC Credit Available.
  • Vocational Rehabilitation Populations and the Startling Intersection of Brain Injury Webinar (VRTAC-QE)- This session will highlight the significant co-occurrence of brain injury within vocational rehabilitation populations and shine a light on challenges as well as solutions, from initial engagement to employment retention. Impairments and associated barriers of brain injury can create a misalignment with goal-oriented and accountable program participation as well as effective job search, placement, and employment stability. However, when known or detected brain injury is meaningfully addressed in the VR process, job seekers with brain injury are more likely to complete application processes, engage in Individualized Plan for Employment activities, and follow through with successfully acquiring and maintaining employment. The session will highlight state approaches for addressing the significant issue of brain injury, strengthening practices, and setting individuals with brain injury up for workplace success. 1 CRC Credit Available.


VR Workforce Studio Singers:  Singing VR Workforce Studio.

Olivia Zerbinati:  Well, due to my experience in brain injury services, I actually bought my own.

Jake Hart:  Four, three, two, one. VR Workforce Studio, podcasting the sparks that ignite vocational rehabilitation through the inspiring stories of people with disabilities who have gone to work.

Flora Frazier:  Working in a field that I understand.

Jake Hart:  As well as the professionals who have helped them.

James Hall:  A job and a career, you got to look at how life-changing this is.

Jake Hart:  And the businesses who have filled their talent pipelines with workers that happen to have disabilities.

Debby Hopkins:  To help expand registered apprenticeship.

Jake Hart:  These are their stories.

Megan Healy:  Because there’s such a great story to tell about people with disabilities.

Jake Hart:  Now, here are the hosts of the VR Workforce Studio, Rick Sizemore and Betsy Civilette.

Rick Sizemore:  Welcome to the VR Workforce Studio podcast. We are fortunate to have the program manager from Brain Injury Services, Zachary Daniel, with us today as we explore a topic that’s very important to those with brain injuries and their families. That’s the road to the workforce. Zachary joins us now from his office in Fredericksburg, along with one of the program members, Olivia Zerbinati  to talk about the creative and exciting ways they’re building workforce skills.

Betsy Civilette:  Welcome, Zachary and Olivia. We’re glad to have you on our podcast today.

Olivia: Thank you so much.

Zachary Daniel: Great to be here.

Rick Sizemore:  Zach, let’s get started with an overview of BIS. Tell us a little about the program.

Zachary Daniel:  I work for the Fredericksburg Day program at Brain Injury Services. And we provide a hybrid service model where we do virtual and in-person activities throughout the week. And we offer three core service areas: skill building projects, educational workshops, and community integration activities. We do this by partnering with occupational therapists and case managers on staff at this, and also local community providers to provide a variety of different opportunities for clients to engage in.

Betsy Civilette:  Zach, you’ve been credited with some wonderful approaches to helping those attending BIS begin the process of building work skills. What kinds of things are you doing?

Zachary Daniel:  Having volunteer opportunities with community partners. Also being able to do volunteer projects in the office to make it more accessible. Especially making new technology accessible and usable through creative design workshops that involves equipment like the Cricut or using other programming online. Partnering with our OTs to do different types of workshops to support instruments of daily living, especially with some tech resources they can use. Hosting a lot of guest presenters on a variety of topics. Recent one included workplace accommodations.

Throughout all of this, I think one of our goals is to encourage radial thinking so that we can really focus in on skill development and alternative ways to help people successful. And lastly, I think championing the mind and body wellness aspect through education and exercise programming really helps survivors to be their best selves in the community and at work. So as an example, we have several clients who may already have a job, but they join a lot of social programs that we do because it helps them to really maintain that work-life balance so that they can continue to be successful in employment.

Rick Sizemore:  Oh, that’s so awesome. We continue to hear about the Cricut machine and board games among other fascinating activities that the BIS attendees are using to build entrepreneurial capacity. So tell us about this Cricut.

Zachary Daniel:  Absolutely. The Cricut is part of a larger goal for our program. It started in 2022 as a collaboration with group based programs and the OT department at BIS. And our vision for our program specifically was to start to include devices, different platforms, tech strategies that could really support the long-term goal of having a maker space at our program for clients to utilize. We wanted folks to basically increase their technology literacy for personal and employment use. Wanted to learn about new strategies and tools for accommodations can help them be successful. And also to mitigate some of the financial barriers that a lot in our community have with access, subscriptions or buying devices or programs. And the Cricut is a great example of one of the first steps in this process.

Betsy Civilette:  Let’s get Olivia involved in this conversation. Olivia, what would you want everyone to know about how you work with the Cricut?

Olivia Zerbinati:  Well, due to my experience in Brain Injury Services, I actually bought my own. And so I’m working on making a Jeep cover for the back. And I’m working on making leather earrings.

Betsy Civilette:  Jeep covering? Is that for a vehicle? How do you design it?

Olivia Zerbinati:  Embroidery.

Betsy Civilette:  What else can you make with the Cricket?

Olivia Zerbinati:  We use a vinyl. Well, so far I’m getting more experience with it. Project that we have been making in our group are shadow boxes and passport and shirt.

Betsy Civilette:  Awesome.

Rick Sizemore:  Could you see yourself starting a business doing work like this on your Cricut?

Olivia Zerbinati:  Yes.

Rick Sizemore:  What’s your dream about going to work?

Olivia Zerbinati:  It would be very beneficial for me because I have a cold condition and work places, they aren’t very good for me.

Betsy Civilette:  So you would be able to work from home, right?

Olivia Zerbinati:  Yeah.

Rick Sizemore:  How does it make you feel when you’re able to produce these products like this?

Olivia Zerbinati:  I actually feel great.

Rick Sizemore:  Conversations in the brain injury community often center around the success of people with brain injuries becoming self-employed. Zach, what is your take on that?

Zachary Daniel:  I absolutely agree. It makes a lot of sense to me. I think having the ability to set up your own work process that fits your employment goals around your strength is key. I think like Olivia highlighted here, and there are may be some issues or challenges. It could be sensitivity to temperatures or just kind of workplace sensory overload where you can be really successful if you have the environment setting you up for that.

I want to quote David Randal, who’s a TED Talk speaker, and we feature him a lot in our education presentations. Quote, “In the right situation, our weaknesses become strengths.” And he shares a lot of examples of where a disability really can become a competitive advantage. So I think we spend a lot of the time at the program like Olivia was highlighting, trying out different projects, identifying and pairing strengths with environmental modifications that can really work for individuals.

Rick Sizemore:  That is so awesome. I’ll ask you the question, Olivia. What’s it like working with Zach? How has he helped you?

Olivia Zerbinati:  Well, since Zach has gave me more experience to the whole program. And we do games, we do cooking, so it built my skills on daily living.

Betsy Civilette:  And Zach, any final thoughts you’d like to add just in general about the program or employment opportunities, again for individuals with brain injury?

Zachary Daniel:  Absolutely. I just want to say in recognition of Brain Injury Awareness Month, it’s great to be featured here, so I appreciate your time, Betsy and Rick to highlight what we’re doing and to feature Olivia’s story. As many other clients are having these different alternative access to tools and technology that can help them be successful. So just want to thank DARS as well for the financial support. We couldn’t do this program without it. And just encourage anyone that wants to learn more about what we do or who we are to check us out at If you’d like to know more.

Rick Sizemore:  Zach, Daniel and Olivia Zerbinati, thank you for being on our podcast today.

Betsy Civilette:  Yes, thank you so much.

Olivia Zerbinati:  You are welcome.

Zachary Daniel:  Thank you both.

Rick Sizemore: Join DARS as we celebrate National Rehabilitation Counselor Appreciation Day.

Lisa Robertson:  Honoring the unsung heroes who championed the career dream of those with disabilities.

Rick Sizemore:  In a world that often overlooks the potential of individuals with disabilities.

Lisa Robertson: Our vocational rehabilitation counselors stand as beacons of hope.

Rick Sizemore:  With extensive knowledge of disabilities and an unwavering commitment.

Lisa Robertson: They guide, support and empower individuals to find their place in the workforce.

Rick Sizemore:  Through their tireless efforts. Rehabilitation counselors bridge the gap between abilities and opportunities.

Lisa Robertson: They see beyond limitations focusing on the vast potential within the workforce pipeline.

Rick Sizemore:  They inspire us to believe in the power of possibilities, ensuring that everyone regardless of ability.

Lisa Robertson: Can achieve their dreams and contribute to the flourishing tapestry of our workforce.

Betsy Civilette:  As our discussion on brain injury continues, we welcome director of our Brain Injury Services unit at DARS, Chris Miller, welcome Chris.

Chris Miller:  Thank you. So glad to be here.

Rick Sizemore:  It’s good to have you on the podcast today. What did you think of the interview with Olivia?

Chris Miller:  I have to admit, when I was listening to it, I was both smiling, and I found myself getting a little teary because it’s just what we’re here to do. Zach creates that beautiful environment. And then Olivia showed what the benefits are and how she’s growing. And she has a vision for the future and she feels valued for who she is. It was just fantastic. It made me smile so much.

Rick Sizemore:  Well, we loved talking with Zach and Olivia. And that focus on work sometimes is a little further down the road for someone with a brain injury. But it’s exciting to hear her talk about self-employment and her future.

Chris Miller:  Yeah. Who doesn’t want to feel like they have that future? A future where they’re contributing and being appreciated for who they are.

Betsy Civilette:  Absolutely. And that sense of self-worth is so important.

Chris Miller:  Yeah.

Betsy Civilette:  So Chris, as you know, DARS along with many others are observing Brain Injury Awareness Month throughout March. One of the reasons is to help people understand just how many people are affected and just how significant the issues are surrounding brain injury. Paint a picture for us that helps us understand the scope and significance of brain injury in Virginia.

Chris Miller:  And I really appreciate you asking that question and highlighting brain injury this month, because brain injury occurs much more often than people know. It’s often undiagnosed. People are hit in the head maybe at a sports event or fall and hit their head, but they don’t go to the emergency room to be checked out. Or maybe they do, but they don’t understand that they’ve been diagnosed with a brain injury.

There are about 300,000 people in Virginia who are disabled by brain injury right now. Children and older adults are the people most affected. But 21% of all traumatic brain injuries among American children come from sports and recreational activities. We also know here in Virginia, and we’re proud that it’s home to many veterans and active enlisted individuals. And traumatic brain injury is a leading injury in combat and is complicated by the side effects of post-traumatic stress disorder, the rates of suicide. So it’s a really important issue to be aware of.

Rick Sizemore:  Yeah, absolutely. The governor’s proclamation went into great detail. We have that posted on the DARS Facebook page. It’s really significant across the entire commonwealth and the numbers are pretty staggering,

Chris Miller:  Yeah. And you’re right, and people are surprised by that because it’s just not as well known as some other disabilities.

Rick Sizemore:  So given that’s the case, walk us through what DARS is doing to help people in Virginia who have a brain injury and their families.

Chris Miller:  Yes, and we are lucky in Virginia that we have a strong network of brain injury providers and they’re supported by the Virginia General Assembly, which designates funding specifically for this safety net. In fact, in recent years, they’ve increased that funding to expand the services to reduce the number of unserved areas. Right now, there are only eight counties that don’t have access to brain injury services. And those services include case management, clubhouse programs, day support programs like Zach and Olivia were talking about, building independent living skills and prepping for employment.

We’re also really lucky that we receive funding from the federal government to build our systems. And right now our current federal grant is being used to expand resources for people with brain injury and their families and their caregivers through Virginia’s No Wrong Door program that’s based right here at DARS and also through the Brain Injury Association of Virginia.

And those systems change activities will include a peer mentor program for families of people newly diagnosed with brain injury and just who are trying to navigate the system while processing everything that’s happened to them. And also embedding an online screener in the No Wrong Door Easy Access website. Screening overall is a big part of our federal grant. In addition to the online screener, we’re working to expand screening in places like behavioral health settings and the community services boards, domestic violence programs, homeless programs. And really for any organization that wants to know about the number of people that they might be serving and how to better support those folks.

Rick Sizemore:  Yeah, well, Chris, I’ll open up a little bit here. My family is no stranger to brain injury. We had a timber accident that left one of my close family members really as they sometimes say, scrambled for six months or a year. And then there was a clearing and he kind of came back to the typical person that we knew. I was in a car wreck in 1988, hit by a drunk driver at over 100 miles an hour or at 100 miles an hour was estimated. So often as families, and individuals go through this bewildering set of circumstances and this overwhelming occurrence in their life, they just don’t know what to do. They don’t know about the screening. Walk us through what a typical family goes through and then what your encouragement is to them to find a path forward when they’re dealing with all of this.

Chris Miller:  Rick, I appreciate that you shared your family’s experiences and I’m so sorry that they had to go through that. I’m also really glad to know that your brain injury was not too serious because you are a true gift here at DARS. But you’ve highlighted real examples that many families have likely experienced and didn’t know that they might result in a brain injury. Screening is not the same as diagnosing, but it lets you know that there could be a reason for those things that you’re experiencing after you’ve gotten a concussion, a stroke or a brain injury. So it helps you know that there’s a reason for things like why your memory isn’t as good or why you get tired so easily. Or why you can’t concentrate for as long as you used to or why you’re just so emotional. Those are a lot of the things that people experience after a brain injury.

And as you experienced, a lot of those things go away over time for people with a mild brain injury. But for other people, those effects and others are long-lasting and they may require having to relearn how to read or write or talk or walk. Brain injury, people tend to think about it as the one point in time when you incur the injury. But really it’s recognized now by the CDC as a chronic injury. It’s something that will be long-lasting.

So screening can help you identify whether or not you want to go and check further. I recently heard a story from someone with a brain injury who said that they had been trying to explain their symptoms to a variety of doctors, medical doctors, psychiatrists, psychologists for a long period of time. And it wasn’t until they took the screening and got some of the information that comes with it about what the symptoms are that they could go back to their physician and say, “Let me show you this list. These are the things that I’m experiencing, and I think it might be related to the brain injury.” And that brought it into a whole different light for the physician who said, “Okay, now I get it.” Because physicians have to start working their way through ruling out things. And this was just a great way. And then they were able to connect that individual to services.

So that’s why we’re really building on screening. Whether it’s going to be through going on and taking it through the No Wrong Door Virginia Easy Access. Whether it’s going into programs where we know that there’s a lot of incidents of brain injury, domestic violence being one of the most new ones. So if someone is hurt in an instance of domestic violence thrown against a wall or perhaps is choked, and I know those are difficult things to hear, and there’s a lot that those folks need to deal with, but that also impacts their brain. And so they’re trying to navigate that world afterwards.

So the Brain Injury Association of Virginia with a grant from the Virginia Department of Public Health has been actually doing screening, spreading out across the commonwealth, getting to more and more domestic violence and sexual assault programs to get that screening and start connecting those folks so that they don’t have to feel like it’s something wrong with them.

Rick Sizemore:  And so many times it is a circumstance of you don’t know what you don’t know.

Chris Miller:  There you go.

Rick Sizemore:  I remember, I had to go to the emergency room, I had to have surgery on my face. I was going through all this, I never dreamed or even thought about a brain injury. And I was working at a rehabilitation center where there were many people with brain injuries. And it wasn’t until I got a letter in the mail from the Virginia Head Injury Foundation and they referenced this recent injury and potential for head injury. And I went, “Oh, wow. I could add a V8.” And I did see a therapist and I did go through an evaluation, and luckily there were no lasting effects from that.

But as you described the emotions. I mean, it’s difficult to even describe. It’s overwhelming for me coming back to work after that accident and seeing so many people with physical injuries from car accidents. And I remember going through this survivor guilt, if you want to call it that. But it was a difficult time. So I think the message I would have in echoing what you’ve said is if you have a question after some type of trauma, the screenings are available and they can be enormously helpful, and the folks at DARS can help guide families through what to do next.

Betsy Civilette:  Yeah. Well, Chris, this has been tremendously helpful to our listeners. So speaking of help, if someone needs help, how do they find resources from DARS?

Chris Miller:  Sure. So the best way would be to go to the DARS website, and look on the disability services page. And there you’ll find connections to the nine state funded brain injury services providers who are across the commonwealth right now. If not, on that page, you’ll also find my contact information. Give me a call, and I will work on getting you connected where you need to be.

Betsy Civilette:  Great. We will put that in the show notes along with the, you mentioned Virginia Easy Access, which houses the screening tool. That’s, and we’ll list that as well.

Chris Miller:  Wonderful.

Rick Sizemore:  Yeah. Well, it’s been a pleasure talking with you today, Chris. Chris is the director of the Brain Injury Services unit at the Virginia Department for Aging and Rehabilitative Services. Thank you.

Chris Miller:  Thank you both.

Rick Sizemore:  Well, it’s time for our National Clearinghouse Report with the always entertaining and informative, Heather Servais. Welcome to the podcast, Heather.

Heather Servais:  Hi, Rick. It’s great to be back with you.

Rick Sizemore:  Yeah, it’s March. The 22nd is National Rehabilitation Counselor Appreciation Day. We love these folks.

Heather Servais:  We do. And National Rehabilitation Counselor Day is so near and dear to my heart, so thank you to all the rehabilitation counselors out there who work so tirelessly to improve the lives of individuals with disabilities, make a difference in their community. We are so thankful for your work every single day.

Rick Sizemore:  And you’ve been a rehabilitation counselor. I haven’t. I am married to a voc rehab counselor, so I get to see firsthand just the level of passion and the work that goes on, not only with my wife who works in voc rehab, but lots of other counselors that we talk to through this podcast. So happy National Rehabilitation Counselor Appreciation Day.

It’s also Brain Injury Month here in March. And you heard our segment earlier with Olivia and Brain Injury Services. You have some resources for our listeners around brain injury.

Heather Servais:  I sure do. There are a lot of really great resources available on the NCRTM about brain injury that are there to support your learning professional development. For today, I pulled three different resources that might help you when you’re learning to learn a little bit more about brain injury.

Since we’ve got a captive audience here on the podcast, the first is actually a podcast episode. It’s called The Business Side of Things: Employment and Brain Injury Podcast. And it was created by the Disability Employment Technical Assistance Center. And this podcast features a panel discussion from an employer perspective on challenges and successes in working with individuals with brain injury. It also goes over national labor market trends and practices. And there’s a personal journey that’s shared from brain injury to work. So it’s a great way to plug in and learn a little bit more about what’s going on nationally with brain injury employment. And so we highly encourage you to check that out.

The second resource I have is from the Vocational Rehabilitation and Technical Assistance Center on Quality Employment. And it’s a training called Traumatic Brain Injury, TBI 101. And this is a great introductory course for VR counselors. If you’ve never worked with an individual with a brain injury, this training provides an overview of what the diagnostics look like, assessment, how you can address psychosocial factors in working with TBI individuals, as well as looking at the vocational rehabilitation considerations for individuals with TBI. The best part is there’s a CRC credit available, so if you’re looking to get your CRCs in, this credit is free. So we highly encourage you to check that training out if you have the opportunity.

And then the last resource I have is also another training opportunity from the VR Technical Assistance Center for Quality Employment. And this one is called Vocational Rehabilitation Populations and the Startling Intersection of Brain Injury Webinar. And this session highlights the significant co-occurrence of brain injury within the vocational rehabilitation populations. Talks a little bit about challenges as well as solutions on how you can engage individuals with brain injury from initial engagement all the way through the VR process to employment retention. So we highly encourage you to check it out. Again, there’s one CRC credit available. It’s free. So it’s a great way for you to continue your learning, continue development, and get those CRC credits in.

Rick Sizemore:  Oh, what wonderful, wonderful resources. And we have a new commissioner out at the Rehabilitation Services Administration. Dante Allen is in place and leading our VR program.

Heather Servais:  We’re looking forward to having him on the show later this year and hearing from him.

Rick Sizemore:  Heather Servais, directs RSA’s National Clearinghouse of Rehabilitation Training Materials and joins us each month for the Clearinghouse Report. Links and resources from the NCRTM are included in the show notes at Thanks, Heather.

Heather Servais:  Absolutely. Thanks for having me, Rick.

Rick Sizemore:  Well, thank you for getting involved in today’s show. If you or someone has a disability and wants to get into the workforce, vocational rehabilitation may just be the answer to kickstart your career. Visit us at to find links and resources as well as our contact information.

On behalf of my co-host, Betsy Civilette, I’m Rick Sizemore inviting you to join us as we podcast the sparks that ignite vocational rehabilitation.

Announcer:  The VR Workforce Studio Podcast is owned and operated by Vocational Rehabilitations Partners in Podcasting. Audio content for the podcast is provided to VR Partners in Podcasting by the Virginia Department for aging and rehabilitative services in exchange for promotional considerations.