Why is Carol Dobak so passionate about vocational rehabilitation?

Carol Dobak

Rick Sizemore Twitter @Rickwwrc or email, rick.sizemore@WWRC.virginia.gov

Anne Hudlow’s email is Annehudlow@comcast.net

Cherie Takemoto ctakemoto@neweditions.net

Carol Dobak Carol.Dobak@ed.gov

Download (Opens in new tab on NCRTM website)  Resources from the NCRTM on Blindness, Low Vision and DeafBlindness


Speaker 1: 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.

Speaker 2: Listen to our amazing stories about the disability employment journey.

Speaker 3: Hear us describe our pathway through the challenge.

Speaker 4: Feel  the joy, and share in our inspiration as we overcome disabilities and go to work.

Speaker 1: We’ll also meet the champions of business and industry who hire individuals with disabilities.

Speaker 5: I can say, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that some of our best employees have disabilities.

Speaker 1: 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 of the VR Workforce Studio Rick Sizemore.

Speaker 6: Begin countdown.

Speaker 1: Along with the Executive Director of the Wilson Workforce and Rehabilitation Center Foundation, Anne Hudlow.

Speaker 6: Four, three, two, one.

Anne Hudlow: On today’s episode of the VR Workforce Studio, we meet Carol Dobak, the Acting Commissioner of the Rehabilitation Services Administration.

Rick Sizemore: Anne, we were so fortunate to get a chance to sit down with Commissioner Dobak at CSAVR’s Fall Conference.

Anne Hudlow: Not only does she have a very compelling disability employment story, she is the leader of the nation’s vocational rehabilitation program.

Rick Sizemore: Welcome to the podcast Carol.

Carol Dobak: Thank you, Rick. I’m glad to be here.

Rick Sizemore: Well, let’s get started with the story of your disability and how VR helped pave the way to your career in vocational rehabilitation.

Carol Dobak: Well, my pathway to a career in vocational rehabilitation is somewhat of an unusual one. I grew up with retinitis pigmentosa though I didn’t consider myself to have a disability or to be blind at that time, despite the fact that I had tunnel vision, night blindness, read print with a great deal of difficulty. I was getting through school and doing well. I didn’t see myself fitting into that world of disability. I set my sights on being a lawyer when I was in high school and that was my career plan. Even though, I did receive financial assistance from the Connecticut Agency for the Blind for my college tuition, I still didn’t see myself as fitting into the world of disabilities.

When I was getting ready to leave college, I knew there were some things that I needed to address. Particularly with respect to my mobility. I contacted my vocational counselor, asked about training. What I knew about people who were blind, never having met another person who was blind, at that point was that maybe I should have a guide dog.  She told me I had too much residual vision. That I didn’t need a guide dog. Offered me no other options.

Rick Sizemore: Wow.

Carol Dobak: That was my end of involvement with vocational rehabilitation for quite some time.

At that same time, as I was exploring those options with my counselor, I had decided that I didn’t want to pursue law school immediately after college. I wanted to do a little more career exploration just to make sure that was the right fit for me in the end. So, I became a paralegal and I was paralegal with two large law firms in Phoenix, Arizona and Richmond, Virginia, for four or five years. I specialized in corporate and securities law, putting together limited partnerships and mortgage-backed bond security offerings in those firms. That’s what I did.

Decided I was going to go to law school so I could get paid for what I was doing and get some of the credit that the lawyers were receiving.

Anne Hudlow: Right. Use your own work.

Carol Dobak: Yeah. Exactly. So, I applied for law school and ended up at the University of Maryland where I was for three years. It was towards the end of my third year in law school that I was noticing some significant changes in my vision.  It was deteriorating and I knew at that point I needed to do something so, I got involved with the blind community in Baltimore. The National Federation of the Blind. I was then meeting other blind people. I was receiving some services, some travel training, Braille training, assistive technology, etc., and that was opening up some opportunities for me that I felt I was losing the deterioration in my vision.

At the same time, I was applying at law firms for jobs. It was a difficult search but I was pursuing it and one day I ended up in an interview in a law firm in Baltimore, sitting across the desk from a partner who started to quiz me a great deal on how I was going to manage to read all of the legal documents that I would need to be reviewing in the practice.

Rick Sizemore: That’s kind of the foundation of being an attorney.

Carol Dobak: Yes. Well, reading is, but he didn’t quite understand the techniques and so I started to explain to him how I could use assistive technology. He said, “No, but we get so much print. There’s so much print material you have to work with.” So, I explained how I could review that material with a sighted assistant. He thought about that for a moment and said, “Well, you know, I think that would work for reading a novel, but it’s not going to work for reading these legal documents,” and, that was that. The interview did continue but it was very discouraging at that point.

Rick Sizemore: You knew at that moment.

Carol Dobak: Yeah, and I walked out of that office knowing one thing. It wasn’t that I could not read and review and understand and analyze legal documents. It wasn’t that I couldn’t actually do the work of a lawyer. It was that I was not employable as a lawyer at that point.

Rick Sizemore: Do you remember generally what year that was?

Carol Dobak: That year was 1991. The ADA had just passed and the lawyer I interviewed with also had some choice things to say about the ADA, which was very uncomfortable in the interview as well.

Rick Sizemore: Yeah.

Carol Dobak: I was so discouraged at that point that I really gave up. I went on to become married, have a child. My life was well in that regard but I wasn’t employed for many years. It wasn’t until people in the field of vocational rehabilitation gave me the opportunity to come work for the Rehabilitation Services Administration that I finally was employed.

Rick Sizemore: So that pathway led to RSA.

Carol Dobak: In the end it did, but it was a rather circuitous route.

Rick Sizemore: Absolutely.

Carol Dobak: That’s why I’m so passionate about the work that vocational rehabilitation programs do and when they’re working with individuals with disabilities and their families and also businesses to raise confidence in both the individual with the disability and their families as well as the employer that individuals with disabilities are fully capable of performing whatever work it is that they set their minds too.

Rick Sizemore: How fortunate though for RSA and for our country and for you that that context that you experienced really created this drive for things to be better for others.

Carol Dobak: Yes. I truly admire VR counselors who do this work every day.

Anne Hudlow: Right.

Rick Sizemore: Nice to have someone at the helm that has that personal experience.

Anne Hudlow: That’s been through it. Sure.

Rick Sizemore: To bring to the courageous stories of voc rehab.

Anne Hudlow: Right. Commissioner, what would you give as advice for someone with a disability that was thinking of trying voc rehab?

Carol Dobak: I think individuals with disabilities have to be open to the process. I think, in the fact that it is a quote “process” that requires a determination of eligibility, and planning for one’s career through the Individualized Plan for Employment, that can seem daunting. Particularly to young persons with disabilities, but I think they need to be open to the process. Open to working with VR counselors to explore career opportunities and open to the ways in which VR agencies can help them along that path and, when necessary, to be persistent.

Anne Hudlow: Right.

Carol Dobak: Yes. To view the relationship with one’s VR counselor as a two-way relationship. The VR counselor certainty has responsibilities, but the individual with the disability has his or her own responsibilities to in many ways take advantage of what VR can offer them.

Rick Sizemore: Absolutely.

Anne Hudlow: Sure.

Rick Sizemore: We’re at CSAVR’s Fall Conference and we’ve had so many experiences here to consider the great things that are going on in business engagement. What would you say to an employer who had not hired someone with a disability yet and was thinking of hiring someone with a disability? What would you say to them?

Carol Dobak: Just as the individual with the disability … to be open to the fact that individuals with disabilities can perform the work that that business or employer is looking for and to take advantage again of what the VR agencies can offer them.

As you mentioned we are at CSAVR and we heard this morning in the session on Career Pathways many ways in which the VR agencies have been able to use those projects to engage with employers in ways that employers had not imagined before. We heard of Virginia’s work with the Virginia Manufacturing Association and how that manufacturing association and its members now are seeing the ways in which individuals with disabilities can perform their work and ways in which to adapt that for all of their employees to improve the ways in which their products are manufactured. That’s very exciting. Again, employers with disabilities really need to be open.

Rick Sizemore: It’s an exciting time in being open minded both as a consumer or as an employer. It really seems the battle cry of the day.

Carol Dobak: Yes.

Anne Hudlow: And, in that vein, do you have a favorite story about an employer that has reached out to hire someone with a disability and has been surprised by the results?

Carol Dobak: I do have a favorite story. Whether the employer, in the end, was surprised by the results or not, I don’t know if I would characterize it as that. But, one of my favorite stories and it’s one I have shared with other audiences since I’ve been in the role of Acting Deputy Commissioner, that is a story I heard at the CSAVR Spring Conference last April and it was a story shared by our friends in the Minnesota VR agency and the work that they had done through the implementation of Section 5.11, they had brought in an individual with a disability who had been assisted through that process to move from a sheltered workshop into employment.

This was an individual named Tamir and Tamir moved from a sheltered workshop into working for Best Buy as a sales associate. And, I think one of the reasons that this story has so much meaning, is, again, it just showed the capabilities of an individual who had been relegated, despite the fact that his mother had fought for him to be educated. He was then being relegated to sheltered employment and the VR agency was able to convince him, convince the CRP, who had been employing him as well as the employer of Tamir’s choice, the Best Buy where he had been buying video games for quite some time, that Tamir could work there.

We heard from the General Manager of the Best Buy that Tamir was a terrific employee, that he was informing as well as many of the other employees at the Best Buy and I’m not so sure he was surprised by the quality of Tamir’s work. What I understand from talking with Kim Peck, the Director of the agency following that presentation, that what really surprised the employer was what that job had meant to Tamir.

Rick Sizemore: And, we certainly anticipate the impact of WIOA generating more and more of those stories where people are realizing new opportunities, then employers are excited to see that there’s a new talent pipeline available to them.

Who has inspired you through the years?

Carol Dobak: Well, one of the figures I look back on as being a very inspirational woman is Eleanor Roosevelt. I’ve always admired her and what she did in her life for persons who were not as advantaged as she was. She fought for racial equality, equality for women, throughout her life as First Lady and then following her time in the White House with her husband.

She demonstrates to me someone who was not only passionate but committed to overcoming the obstacles as well as someone who is just persistent in all that she did.

She was open to learning from those around her. I’m reading, right now, the book called, “Firebrand and the First Lady” about her friendship with a woman, Pauli Murray who was an advocate for racial equality from her youth and time in the 30s and through the development of the friendship between Pauli Murray and Eleanor Roosevelt and the education that Eleanor was open to receiving from Pauli and others who were working with her on the problems that people were facing and then finding ways, in her role, to assist those persons and overcome those obstacles.

Rick Sizemore: I believe in the years that follow you will be one of those people who inspire many who hear your story and see the impact of the great work that you’ve done throughout your life.

Carol Dobak: Well, thank you.

Anne Hudlow: It’s been said that many individuals with disabilities are great problem solvers. That they are creative and therefore make wonderful employees. What is your take on that?

Carol Dobak: I have mixed feelings about that kind of statement. That goes to sort of the quote “business case” for hiring people with disabilities, and I agree that people with disabilities, many people with disabilities demonstrate great problem solving skills and are creative individuals just as people without disabilities are and they should be judged on those skills, having those skills, as an employer would be viewing any other individual who came to them for a job prospect.  Not considered to be in a class that’s somehow different from individuals without disabilities because of those skills, but they are competing on the same level and those skills should be recognized.

It is not the sole reason to be looking at people with disabilities to be hired. They need to be competing on the same level as everybody else. Given the opportunity to do that and all of their qualities, not only their specific knowledge and skills and experience for the tasks of the job that is called for but also those other, as we would say, soft skills. The problem solving, the creativity, that the employer would be looking for in any candidate.

Rick Sizemore: I think that’s so right.

Anne Hudlow: Yeah, that’s what I say.

Rick Sizemore: And more and more, we get that al the time on this show, “Oh! They’re great problem solvers because they have a disability.” Well, they just happen to be very creative, and I have to talk about my good friend, Tom Coplai, who is a plant manager at Provides US. A plant who has hired numerous individuals with disabilities and he will say to you upfront, “I don’t care if they have a disability. I see a worker on the plant floor who is capable and able to do the job that I have here.”  And, disability seems to be disappearing from the equation as employers understand they have access to talented workers.

Carol Dobak: Yes.

Rick Sizemore: We always get into WIOA measures in these conversations, and I have said this to many others, they got this one right. I’m so excited about WIOA and particularly the measures. Any comments you’d like to make from your perspective on WIOA?

Carol Dobak: In terms of the measures themselves, Rick, I do feel that they will help RSA and VR agencies themselves to understand how well individuals are succeeding in the VR program as well as how well they are succeeding after they leave the VR program. We have couple of measures that we haven’t had before, in terms of measurable skill gains and credential attainment, that will really help us understand the extent to which, individuals with disabilities are being prepared by the VR program for success in employment. I think that’s quite critical and I think it’s something our VR agencies have been asking for in the past.

We also, now, will be able to see how well individuals with disabilities are succeeding once they leave the VR program for at least a year out through the first two of the measures, employment in the second quarter and employment in the fourth quarter. And, we’ll also, again, be able to see how the types of wages that they are receiving.

Those have been measures in the past, that’s looking at them slightly differently and I think and in a way that’s going to help us judge the ultimate success of individuals with disabilities. No longer at the moment that they leave the VR program, but what their future has looked like after leaving the VR program.

And then, the final measure having to do with the success of VR agencies as they engage with businesses and employers I think, is a critical piece that’s been missing in our assessment of the VR program or at least the tools we’ve had at our disposal to measure that success. So, that’s very exciting, as well.

Anne Hudlow: Well, we surely do appreciate your time and your thoughts today. It’s really enlightening for us, and we appreciate your perspective. Any final thoughts on the future of VR and what opportunities are ahead for individuals with disabilities?

Carol Dobak: I think VR, the Vocational Rehabilitation program is experiencing its challenges right now as we move forward with implementation of WIOA. There’s some big shifts going on with implementation of pre-employment transition services and how that needs to be accomplished through the provisions set out in the Rehabilitation Act and the regulations.

You know, certainty adapting to all the data that we just spoke about but will be very valuable in the future. That’s been a big shift for VR agencies.  And, we’re also receiving a pressure from outside of the vocational rehabilitation system as government engages in the review of regulations and guidance, as that work is going on you will see what changes that may bring to the VR program. So, again, those are challenges but there’s also opportunities and I’ve been so excited as I have been here at CSAVR to learn of all the ways in which our VR agencies are really busy engaging in the work under WIOA and facing those challenges.

I’ve been truly heartened by what I’ve seen here from South Carolina and what the two agencies are doing in this great state as well as learning of all of the other opportunities that our discretionary grant programs are offering as well, to VR agencies and individuals with disabilities. So, it’s an exciting time.

Rick Sizemore: The folks that listen to this podcast are clearly interested in the success of individuals with disabilities. There are family members, there are businesses who listen, there are individuals with disabilities themselves to see you take your time to be with us today has been a great honor, and I want to thank you for your time today, Commissioner.

Carol Dobak: Thank you Rick and thank you Anne. It’s been a pleasure.

Anne Hudlow: Thank you so much.

Rick Sizemore: Well, in addition to all the great work that’s happening at RSA, RSA of course, the Rehabilitation Services Administration, they also fund the National Clearinghouse of Rehabilitation Training Materials, and you’ll often hear that referred to as the NCRTM.

We’ve been so fortunate to have the NCRTM Director, Cherie Takemoto on couple of podcasts recently, and the response has been so positive from listeners like you, that we’ve convinced her to become a regular part of the show. So, here with the Clearinghouse update, our good friend, Cherie Takemoto. Welcome back to the podcast, Cherie.

Cherie Takemoto: Thanks Rick.

Rick Sizemore: Well, I know that accessibility is important, not only for people who are blind but also for folks with low vision, reading disabilities or people who just prefer listening to information like our podcast listener. How can the NCRTM help folks who want to share their materials but may be intimidated about whether or not they’re accessible?

Cherie Takemoto: Well, I hope people aren’t too intimidated because accessibility is so important to RSA, the NCRTM and of course the VR Workforce podcast studio. So, we can provide technical assistance for accessibility as part of our contract, and I’ve shared a link for accessibility resources from our NCRTM, and we also have brief videos on how to get started including one for listeners who are just curious about how screen readers work.

Rick Sizemore: And that is so cool, if you haven’t seen it, you really have to check that out. We just heard this great interview with Carol Dobak. Where do people with blindness or low vision go to get help finding a job?

Cherie Takemoto: Most people know that there are state VR programs for job seekers with disabilities. Fewer know that RSA also funds state VR programs for the blind. The National Council on State Agencies for the Blind has information about specialized services. They have a directory of state programs and information about how people who are legally blind can become independent food service professionals under something called the Randolph Sheppard Act.

Rick Sizemore: What about people who are older?

Cherie Takemoto: I’m glad you asked. Our site also funds blind programs in every state. They help people aged 55 or older, who are blind or are losing their vision so that they can live as independently as possible. So, I’ve shared some resources from the RSA funded, Technical Assistance Center, and there’s a mentoring manual with key resources for those new to the field and free, free, free-

Rick Sizemore: We all love free.

Cherie Takemoto: Free continuing education opportunities for those working in the field.

Rick Sizemore: Cherie has put together some great resources for you. We’ll share those in the show notes and Cherie you’ve included materials on deafblindness.

Cherie Takemoto: Yeah. So, DeafBlind Interpreting and National Resource Center has just released a new report on pro-tactile American Sign Language interpreters. It’s very interesting. There’s an annotated bibliography and what training is needed for pro-tactile ASL.

Rick Sizemore: Tell us about AbleData resources.

Cherie Takemoto: As you know, assistive technology has greatly expanded independence and opportunities for people with disabilities beyond what was even available even a few years ago. AbleData has links to over 6000 items for individuals with blindness and low vision. They include devices, apps, games, learning tools, software and other interesting things. In addition, there’s a feature on AT in the workplace and one of the resources that I really liked was one that highlights innovative wave finding technology.

Rick Sizemore: You can find all of Cherie’s contact information along with links to all of these great resources. They’re in the show notes at vrworkforcestudio.com. We’ll see you next time Cherie and welcome to they VR Workforce Studio team.

Cherie Takemoto: I’m so happy to be here.

Rick Sizemore: Well, we finish up today with reflections from a young woman named Mila, who earned her WIOA recognized workforce credentials in Information Technology and now works at a major ship building company.

Now, Mila’s reflections on her vocational rehabilitation journey.

Mila: I have a couple of disabilities. One is Generalized Anxiety Disorder and the other is Recurrent Major Depressive Disorder. I’ve had to learn over time skills that would allow me to overcome that barrier and being here in an environment that accommodates for that, has allowed me to definitely work on improving that.

I’ve got so many resources here that make me feel empowered to go into the work force. I’ve got my instructors, the administrative staff, my counselor, and it’s just a whole bunch of people that I’ve met here as well as the credentials that I’ve gotten in this facility during my program.

The main credential that’s being strived for in the program is CompTIA A+, and that is a fantastic certification for getting into the information technology field. It shows corporations and employers that you are knowledgeable in a wide variety of technical troubleshooting and repair skills and including software and hardware. It’s very comprehensive. A lot of jobs are looking for it.

The environment really promotes growth and development and really has an individualistic approach to helping its clients deal with managing and overcoming their disabilities and that is really spectacular, in the sense that it allows the individuals to grow and develop and move on to the next chapter of their life much more quickly and effectively than, I think, could be possible anywhere else.

Rick Sizemore: If you’d like to get involved with our podcast there’s several ways you can do that by visiting vrworkforcestudio.com. You’ll find all kinds of links and resources in addition to our inspiring stories of vocational rehabilitation.

You can sign up for our email alerts and we’ll shoot an email to you every time we post a new episode. We never share your information, and we only use these emails to send you updates on our new releases.

You can leave us a voice message by simply clicking on the tab just below the player. Maybe you’d like to share a quick story or an update on vocational rehabilitation for an upcoming show.

Well, we have lots of exciting interviews in the works. Sarah Price Hancock from WINTAC, joins us with her unbelievable story of recovery and thoughts about the value of work in the vocational rehabilitation process and David Dillon, takes us on his journey to a job at Eastman Chemical and discusses how vocational rehabilitation and the Dream It. Do It. Virginia program paved the way for his career despite his disability.

Well, we also want to welcome a new partner in podcasting, V2V, that’s Valley 2 Virginia, which is a federal Department of Labor grant that’s helping establish apprenticeships in great companies like Hershey and Provides all across the state.

As we take on the opportunities and challenges of WIOA, and embrace CSAVR’s Vision 2020, there are lots of exciting stories emerging from individuals with disabilities about their journeys along the career pathway and you can hear them all right here on the VR Workforce Studio podcast. Also available on the Global Impact Today radio network thanks to our very good friend Deb Ruh, a global communications leader.  Don’t forget to checkout her podcast, Human Potential at Work, at ruhglobal.com.

Well, that’s it for today’s show on behalf of our Executive Producer, Anne Hudlow and the Wilson Workforce and Rehabilitation Center Foundation, I’m Rick Sizemore with the courageous stories of vocational rehabilitation.

Speaker 1: Support for the Foundation’s production and distribution of the VR Workforce Studio comes from CVS Health, Dominion Energy, the Virginia Manufacturers Association and Jessie Ball duPont Fund.