Episode 119 VR Workforce Studio

Celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973


National Clearinghouse of Rehabilitation Training Materials

In commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, NCRTM has several materials that feature the rich history of vocational rehabilitation (VR). Gain valuable insights into the program’s evolution over time through these resources:

Rehabilitation Act 50 (ODEP) is a webpage that features a variety of activities to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

VR101: History, System, Process (NCIEC) is a webpage designed to expose interpreting education students to the history of the VR program and to foster interest in working the VR setting. The module contains information on the history and process of VR which may be valuable to individuals interested in learning more about the evolution of VR.

For further exploration, visit the NCRTM curated list on Introduction to VR / VR 101. This list offers additional materials that provide insights into the development, history, and process of VR.


VR Workforce Singers:  VR Workforce Studio.

Kim Roberts:  And then, just they called me that day and I still feel like I was… I’m gonna start cry. That this was made for me.

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 episode 119 of the VR Workforce Studio Podcast as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

Betsy Civilette:  Well, this is a special feature presentation brought to you in cooperation with the Council of State Administrators of Vocational Rehabilitation, and the Rehabilitation Services Administration.

Rick Sizemore:  And we’re, of course, delighted to have our Virginia Agency Commissioner Kathy Hayfield with us on today’s show. Welcome, Kathy.

Kathy Hayfield:  Thank you, Rick and Betsy. It’s great to be here and we are thrilled about today’s celebration episode. Let’s get started with reflections from RSA’s Carol Dobak.

VR Workforce Singers:  Big. Big. Inspiration. Big. Big.

Carol Dobak:  And this 50th anniversary does mean an awful lot to me personally, as an individual with a disability, myself. I know that I would not be where I am today in my career if it were not for the vocational rehabilitation program, as designed under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and all that it offers for people with disabilities. The vocational rehabilitation programs have helped me in, in my career goals and aspirations by supporting my education and helping me to receive other needed services as an individual who is blind that I use every day. Whether it is my ability to travel from my home in Baltimore and into D.C., and to events across the country in my role as Deputy Commissioner, as well as to just engage in my daily work activities. The vocational rehabilitation program has meant so much to me, personally, as I know it has to individuals with disabilities across the country.

Rick Sizemore:  Well, as Carol says, we are thrilled to share vocational rehabilitation success stories from all across the nation as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

Betsy Civilette:  Well, stories like those from our first guest, who comes to us from Michigan, Ahmad Jaafil, works for LanguageLine Solutions based in Monterey, California.

Rick Sizemore:  Welcome to the podcast, Ahmad.

Ahmad Jaafil:  Hello, Rick. I’m happy to be here.

Rick Sizemore:  Great.

Ahmad Jaafil:  How are you?

Rick Sizemore:  I’m great! Thank you for joining us. You know, as an immigrant, who is visually impaired, you found your way to a dream job through vocational rehabilitation. Ahmad, tell us your story.

Ahmad Jaafil:  I am a Lebanese immigrant. I’m currently residing in Michigan. I moved to Michigan from my home country of Lebanon with my family back in October 2021. And at that time, I had just received my Bachelors and so I wanted to begin a new chapter in my life. When we got to Michigan, I wanted to hit the ground running, and that’s exactly what I did. A month after we arrived and we settled in, I contacted the Bureau of Services for Blind Persons of Michigan. I wanted to undergo vocational rehab training. It’s something that I’d never done before, back in Lebanon, and we got started right away. My home counselor visited me, we agreed on a plan. Our end goal was to, to get employment, and thankfully, we were able to achieve that. Now, I went to the training center in May of 2022 to get my training. I received independent living training and vocational rehab. It was mainly focused on me acquiring skills to live independently, and being able to take care of myself, and I also learned essential fundamentals for employment and job-seeking skills. And boy did those help out with my job. They really landed me that job. Basically, what this job, what I’ll be doing is, I’ll be receiving calls from different kinds of companies like, auto insurance companies, home insurance companies, banks, hospitals, and anything you can imagine. Even 911 calls.

Rick Sizemore:  Wow.

Ahmad Jaafil:  So, what I’ll be doing is, I’ll be… Yeah. What I’ll be doing is, I’ll be like a bridge to narrow the language gap between an, a person who speaks Arabic but isn’t proficient with English, and another person who speaks English. So, I’ll be like a mediator and a cultural broker.

Rick Sizemore:  What an amazing, amazing opportunity to apply your talents and bring you into the workforce. As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Rehabilitation Act, what would you say is the biggest impact of vocational rehabilitation for you, personally?

Ahmad Jaafil:  First off, freedom. I’m free to do whatever I want. I don’t need anyone to hold on to or to get to where I need to go, and it also signals independence. By acquiring all of these skills, I’m now someone that you can now depend on and not someone who depends on others. It means a lot to me to be able to just go outside for a walk alone and enjoy the nature that’s around. And at the same time, professionally, I’m just happy to be able to perform at an excellent level just like any other person, despite being visually impaired. So, it’s like, at the same time, sending a message to people that, “Hey, I’m visually impaired but I’m as good as any other person at doing just about anything.”

Rick Sizemore:  Wow. Ahmad works as an online language interpreter from his home in Michigan. Thanks for being on our podcast today, Ahmad.

Ahmad Jaafil:  Thank you, Rick, it’s my pleasure.

Rick Sizemore:  Our celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Rehabilitation Act continues. It’s important to recognize that the VR program serves a dual customer; both individuals with disabilities and business. The Eastern Healthcare Group operates a network of nursing and rehabilitation facilities in Virginia and evolved a partnership with the Virginia Department for Aging and Rehabilitated Services to help fill their talent pipeline with individuals that happen to have disabilities. People like Kim Roberts. Welcome to the podcast, Kim. Tell us about Eastern Healthcare Group and your work there.

Kim Roberts:  They hire a lot of people to do the volunteer work to help them with the little things that they need help with. And really, I was supposed to go into medical records and help scan the records because it was far behind and he felt that, you know, I could do that being, you know, an office position before. But I’ve been on disability for over ten years and I just needed to get out of the house. I was always on the computer looking for something, doing something, and just nothing. I was getting really, really discouraged, and then just they called me that day. And I still feel like I was… Ooh, I’m gonna start cry.


Kim Roberts:  That this was made for me.

Rick Sizemore:  It sounds like it was.

Kim Roberts:  That I was chosen for this job.

Rick Sizemore:  Yeah, go ahead, Kim. Tell us more about that. You, you feel like this job was, it was just destined to, for you to be in it.

Kim Roberts:  Yes, yes it was because these people need somebody that cares about them. And I have so much love for everybody. I’m sorry.

Rick Sizemore:  Well. No. It, it sounds like such an inspiring story. You were at home, you were feeling…

Kim Roberts:  Yeah.

Rick Sizemore:  Defeated. Not able to find a job and, and so you made this connection. You’ve moved into employment.

Kim Roberts:  We did it that day. I mean, not even two hours and they were calling me to come in on Monday.

Betsy Civilette:  Could you tell us just a little bit more about your, your disability?

Kim Roberts:  Well, I have a lot. I take a lot of medications for depression, anxiety, migraines, fibromyalgia, arthritis. You name it, I got it. Carpal tunnel, I have everything. But, I don’t let that pull me back from where I am. I give my 100% or 200% here.

Rick Sizemore:  Jillene Whitenack, regional operations director, was instrumental in working with DARS to bring Kim Roberts on board. Jillene, what’s your perspective about incorporating people with disabilities into your operations?

Jillene Whitenack:  Yeah. I just want to say that I have, I’ve really come to see the light of the, the benefit to us. You know, it was funny because when I was first approached with it, I viewed it as, “Well yeah, we’ll help them out, you know. We’ll provide a place from them to, to maybe put some of their people, or do some internships, or.” So, I kind of viewed it from the terms of us providing something. But it has really become a valuable resource for us, you know. Everybody’s got challenges in the labor market and, and it’s one of our go-to things that I use now. “Well, let’s call Larry. Let’s see if he has anybody.” So, it really, my perspective on the role that they play in, in our organization has changed dramatically. It’s, it’s something that I, I’m almost a little selfish about it. I don’t want to let anybody else know about it because I’m like we got such a great thing here! It’s another venue for us to get talent that really has been valuable. So I do appreciate it.

Rick Sizemore:  Yeah. Akiva Shapiro is the CEO of Eastern Healthcare Group that operates Old Dominion Rehabilitation and Nursing where Kim works, along with numerous other facilities in Virginia. Akiva, what is your experience from a management perspective?

Akiva Shapiro:  Almost everyone that we have hired from your program has been a smashing success. And what makes Eastern Healthcare Group different than the other companies is that we will take these chances on things that we think will work and things that we like. And this is a, a, been a successful program for us. I think, again, I think it’s what sets us apart is, is just our, we don’t, we don’t have the fear to try something new and different.

Rick Sizemore:  Akiva, when you were younger you worked with people who that disabilities. Did it shape your perspectives about employing people with disabilities?

Akiva Shapiro:  When I was 18 years old, I took my first job working weekends with, in a group home and I worked with individuals with disabilities. I was a, I took them on trips on Sundays and part of what I did was, was actually take them to their jobs and drop them off and, and, and many of them were very successful. So, when I heard about this program, I, I had seen firsthand that if properly guided and nourished, can, can, can help you and, and they can help themselves. I still go to that same supermarket that I dropped this guy off at all those years ago, and he’s still there working. It, it, it’s, it’s really amazing. A, a disability is just, I only call it just a name, it’s, it’s just a, maybe even just an idea and if, if you put your mind past your, you know… I don’t, I don’t think anything has to hold anybody back.

Rick Sizemore:  Akiva Shapiro and the Eastern Healthcare team are being recognized as the 2023 Champions of Disability Employment from the Virginia Department for Aging and Rehabilitative Services. Our podcast celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 continues now as we welcome Yasmin Availa Guillen. Yasmin leads business services for Oklahoma Rehabilitation Services. Yasmin, tell us your story. How did you wind up leading Business Services for Oklahoma Rehabilitation Services?

Yasmin Availa Guillen:  I used to be an attorney in a different country and I moved to the United States due to reasons out of my hands and my family’s hands. We moved here in 2014. I wasn’t really sure about what I would be doing and the, at that point, I was already legally blind, just I didn’t know that I was legally blind, and disabilities are not perceived in the same way where I used to live. So, I, I, I… It was something like, “Yeah, you cannot see a little bit. You, you, you’re going to be fine, everything’s going to be okay.” But when I came here I had a shock because I didn’t speak the language, I did not, you know, see, I was in a different country, in a different place, and… So, I went to rehabilitation, I went to vocational rehabilitation, someone advised me to get there with them and I start on my process, you know, working for the Department of Rehabilitation. Then, you know, they gave me the opportunity to study to be a rehab counselor and I, I went through a lot of different situations. I used to be a rehab technician, then I went to be a rehab teacher, then I went Business Enterprise Program trainer, then I became a, a counselor, then, you know, then it was the development of the Business Services Program, that was, you know, coming to all the VR services. And one of my former supervisors and mentors got to be the coordinator of the Business Services Program. She hired me initially as a business services liaison, and then, you know, when she retired I applied for this position to coordinate the program. And here I am today, nine years later after I moved to the United States.

Betsy Civilette:  Wow!

Rick Sizemore:  What an amazing story.

Betsy Civilette:  That is! And many wonderful positions in VR. How do VR services model the way?

Yasmin Availa Guillen:  I will tell you, you know, one of the thing that, a lot of the things, times we don’t think about is how we should work a little bit more as a business. And I’m not talking about the business producing money, we produce services for people out there. And when we produce services for people out there, we should role the way that we embrace people, we embrace diversity, we embrace disability. We should be the first ones to do that. We lead by, by, by models, I believe, I really believe in that, we lead by role examples. And VR, it should or, or in many cases is because I can say that in Oklahoma is an excellent example of how you, as a business, work with your people, how you embrace people, how you give people an opportunity. See, the deal is in people if they take that opportunity and, and I must encouraging in this area, you know, to, to the clients because it’s not just VR or the companies, it’s us as people with disabilities that we have to take the advantage.

Rick Sizemore:  Well, you’re certainly living proof that people with disabilities can excel in the state agencies and help other people with disabilities to move into the workforce. Yasmin, what does the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and its 50th anniversary mean to you, not only as a person who works to help people with disabilities to find careers, but as a person who has a disability?

Yasmin Availa Guillen:  As a person with a disability and as a former, you know, attorney, a practicing attorney, I, I will tell you I wasn’t a specialist in human rights. And in Latin America, we don’t have something like the Rehab Act and sometimes I feel like even in the United States in, in this country that is wonderful and we love so much, we do not understand the, the, the, the, the, the magnitude or, or, or how much this type of regulations or this type of laws do for people. To provide for people that has capabilities, that they have the skills to perform jobs, do the things in a daily life as anybody else, maybe with some reasonable accommodations, but it opens, it has opened the door for many more things for all of us. I do really, you know, feel that is a unique opportunity, a unique law that we should understand, we all should be more aware of. When people is not aware of, they should be more interested in knowing a little bit more about why, how it happened, you know, why we, we are subject, why we… We need to really get more into the idea of knowing about the Rehab Act about ADA and about all these, you know, regulations that allow us, as a community, to be better, to be more diverse, to accept, to not discriminate, and, and, and to do so many wonderful things that we can do as a country.

Betsy Civilette:  Yasmin, thank you for joining us on today’s podcast.

Rick Sizemore:  Yasmin Availa Guillen leads Business Services for the Oklahoma Rehabilitation Services from her offices in Tulsa and Oklahoma City. Thank you for being on our podcast today.

Yasmin Availa Guillen:  Thank you.

Betsy Civilette:  Our next guest joins us from Florida. Delaina Parrish is a Florida native and a Marketing Business school graduate from the University of Florida. As a multi-dimensional influencer with cerebral palsy, she leverages her voice on state-wide, national, and global platforms.

Rick Sizemore:  She is the co-founder of Fearless Independence, LLC, and is described by Forbes Magazine as, “A rising entrepreneur.” She serves on Florida’s Rehabilitation Council. Delaina has a speech disorder and uses a communication device with eye-tracking, which you’ll hear as we welcome Delaina to the podcast.

Delaina Parrish:  Hi. Thank you for having me. It’s an honor to be here.

Betsy Civilette:  Well, Delaina, tell us about yourself and Fearless Independence.

Delaina Parrish:  Important things to know about me are that I utilize my tenacity and my wit to forge pathways for myself and others. I’ve been told that my family and friends always knew that I would become a trailblazer and an adventurer. Growing up with cerebral palsy forced me to navigate through a world that wasn’t really designed for someone like me. But still, I have flown airplanes, climbed rock walls, surfed, rolled the runway in a major New York fashion show, and became a university graduate in the midst of a global pandemic. And then I, along with two partners, set out to expand our business centered around influencing, public speaking, and inclusionary consulting. Imagine that, a person with a speech disorder going on a speaking circuit. When the pandemic hit I thought, “How ironic that when the noise of the world started to quiet, more people started to be heard.” This realization along with heightened prioritization of diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workplace created a niche for Fearless Independence to capture. While there are an abundance of resources to support people with disabilities in the workplace, we all know there is the need for people with disabilities to be authentically represented in marketing and communication efforts. With that, the mission of Fearless Independence is to empower, educate, and cultivate the belonging perspective through leveraging the representation and voices of those with disabilities.

Rick Sizemore:  Delaina, we’re celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Rehabilitation Act. How has vocational rehabilitation helped you achieve your goals and how can VR prepare people with disabilities for success?

Delaina Parrish:  Vocational rehab didn’t enter the picture until my senior year of high school, which was a critical missed opportunity to fully prepare my family and myself for college and beyond. But once onboard, VR offered substantial financial support for college and along with other academic scholarships. I was able to graduate without the burden of student loan debt. That was a true blessing since a gap exists in fully connecting the dots between higher education, employment, and earning potential for people who also utilize services like Med waiver or receive SSI. Now that there is more equitable pay for counselors, which was a huge barrier to recruitment, I hope more customers can receive skilled assistance from VR in creative in impactful ways. We have seen a paradigm shift in corporate culture and hiring practices to fully immerse employees with disabilities. Vocational rehabilitation has a responsibility to complement these efforts. The US Labor and Statistics’ most recent report stated that of the people with disabilities with a college degree or higher, only 30.8% were employed. What a dismal number. Compare that to their counterparts without disabilities, we find 74.8% are employed. If VR’s ultimate goal is to help people with disabilities find and retain competitive and integrated employment, then VR must partner with disability allies and legislators elected, to re-define how disability is portrayed, and also how policy is written. VR must be proactive in aligning the needs of tomorrow’s skillsets with uniquely capable VR individuals. Those will be vastly different from what most of us can even imagine today. Finally, the integration of continuous innovation will be crucial for VR to adopt, ensuring success of current and future customers. While there’s much to celebrate in how far inclusive employment has come over 50 years, we can’t allow complacency to set in. The future has never been so limitless for people with disabilities.

Rick Sizemore:  Delaina, of your many accomplishments, what are you most proud of?

Delaina Parrish:  My proudest accomplishment is one that I hope will remain true for years to come, the commitment to fundamentally know the essence of my voice and to know its impact. The trajectory of how I use my voice has evolved and will continue to as it should with new experiences. This in return has equipped me with purpose and passion to engage in conversations with others so our collective voice can be a catalyst for change. I intend to leverage my voice as an asset to help businesses, brands, and organizations develop strategies that showcase the future of inclusion.

Betsy Civilette:  Well, Delaina, could you close with words of encouragement and inspiration that you’d offer to others with disabilities when navigating the workforce?

Delaina Parrish:  What I’d really like to offer is this, rather than trying to fit a mold that employers might have, present yourself with all your unique, incredible skills and market them as true assets. Look for employers who respect your abilities and will integrate them into their mission, and expect to participate as a full member of a team, not a unicorn brought in as a prize. And remember the words of Dr. Seuss, “Today you’re you, that is truer than true. There’s no one alive who is youer than you.”

Rick Sizemore:  Delaina Parrish comes to us from Florida where she operates Fearless Independence, LLC. Thanks for joining us today, Delaina.

Delaina Parrish:  It was my pleasure.

Rick Sizemore:  Now join us for the Stars of VR with reflections on rehabilitation from all across the nation.

Samuel Armas:  Yeah, my disability is spina bifida. It is a birth defect in which when I was born, part of my vertebra was exposed leading to some paralysis in the legs, and feet, and lower extremities. And VR has played a major impact in my life.

Dr. Michelle Ned:  He was able to receive employment and just have his life at a better medium and that’s what I was very proud of.

Katie Kettner:  Isaac is a pleasure to work with. He shows up for work on time every day. He has his daily routines that he does every day.

Isaac Kolstad:  I had to re-learn everything from like I had to re-learn how to count, how to talk, how to walk.

Chris Wells:  If, if you were to ask the question, it’s the ability to work with individuals like Sam. Our providers, our sister agencies, to figure out how we reduce these barriers for individuals and, and help them further their goals in employment. So, that’s, that’s something that, that, that I think we all cherish.

Dana McKinney:  25 OVR customers have completed a ten-week paid internship in various state agencies. In Pittsburg, Harrisburg, and Philadelphia, and this experience affords college students with disabilities the opportunity to experience state employment, while at the same time, gaining real-life work experiences in addition to their college studies. We’re really excited about the partnership that we have with the Office of Administration and we’re really proud of our interns this summer.

Nicolas Spohn:  Government operations, analytical skills, you know, research. Like all kinds of things like that. I think it’s has been some of the main things I’ve learned.

Katie Kettner:  I would define this job as we have to do it all. It’s just him and me here. So, some of that is going out and marketing, which he is exceptional at.

Samuel Armas:  What’s next is, I’m hoping to sign on with a professional wheelchair basketball team over in Europe in the coming months.

Dr. Michelle Ned:  And in Louisiana, we pretty much developed new revenue. And just to see everyone going back to, back to work and receiving the services that they need to go back to work has been superb. That’s what I would say.

Mohamed Mohamud:  And I would say that it really took a lot of grit and took a lot of determination from Isaac. And it certainly helped that VRS was also here along with him, to help him along his journey to finding employment and finding fulfillment in his life. And his story is just really inspiring and it’s, it’s one of many, many stories that, that VRS works with throughout this state.

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

Heather Servais:  In commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, NCRTM has several materials that feature the rich history of vocational rehabilitation. You can gain valuable insights into the program’s history and evolution through these resources. The first is Rehabilitation Act 50, which is by the Office of Disability Employment Policy. And this is a webpage that features a variety of activities to help celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Rehab Act. The second is called VR 101: History, Systems & Process, which is by the National Consortium of Interpreter Education Centers. And this is a webpage that’s designed to expose interpreter education students to the history of the VR program and to foster interest in working in the VR setting. But it’s great for anybody who may be interested in VR and the history. The module contains information about the history and process and may be valuable to anyone who is hoping to learn a little bit about VR. For further exploration check out the NCRTM Curated List on Intro to VR or VR 101, and this offers additional materials that can provide insights into the development, history, and process of VR.

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 vrworkforcestudio.com. Thanks, Heather.

Rick Sizemore:  Well, thank you for getting involved in today’s show. If you or someone you know has a disability and wants to get into the workforce, vocational rehabilitation may just be the answer to kickstart your career. Visit us at vrworkforcestudio.com to find links and resources as well as our contact information. On behalf of my co-host, Betsy Civilette, and I’m Rick Sizemore inviting you to join us as we podcast the sparks that ignite vocational rehabilitation.

Jake Hart:  The VR Workforce Studio Podcast is owned and operated by Vocational Rehabilitation’s 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.