Autism and the Perfect Job in Telecommunications.

The Jimmy Fraley Story

Thanks to our Special Guest

Thanks to Jimmy Fraley for sharing his powerful story of overcoming the odds and staying course to Success.   And Aaron Simmons from Touchtel Communications for his support and guest call to the show. Thank you Richard Kriner, Cathy Crowder and Matt Hooven for your interview comments and support.

Rick Sizemore

Director of the Wilson Workforce and Rehabilitation Center

Anne Hudlow

Director of the WWRC Foundation



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Jimmy: “I think businesses are really looking to. You know, innovate, and be competitive, and rehabilitate and bring in the best talent. They’re realizing that there’s this untapped pool of folks with these superpowers that indeed are going to add to the bottom-line of their business”.

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Rick: Hey thank you for joining our podcast today. We so appreciate you spending a few minutes with us here at the VR Workforce Studio, and helping us continue the disability employment conversation. You’re always welcome here. If you’d like to get involved with the show, all of our contact information is listed at the show notes at VR Workforce and there are several helpful links in the resources that you might find useful as well.

Anne: Well, we have a studio full of people this morning.

Rick: That’s right. Uh. On Today’s episode we’re turning your disability into a superpower!

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Anne: I just love that phrase. Turning your disability into a superpower.

Rick: Anne we have an incredible lunch with a great speaker this week. Didn’t we?

Anne: We did, we did. Elizabeth Creamer was an inspiration to us all.

Rick: Yeah. And she used that phrase “turning your disability into a superpower.” That really… That really resonated with not only me, but I think everyone in the room.

Anne: It did. It really stuck, it really stuck. It was kind of a pivotal point in her… in her presentation and people just kind of perked up and said “Oh, yeah-superpower.”

Rick: But I’ve been hearing that from other people lately and so in our big inspiration showcase today the Jimmy Fraley story as we discuss vocational rehabilitation and inspiration. Engaging employers at the speed of business. Also reflections from Richard Kriner at Autism and disability employment.

Anne: Well, up first is a guest who has worked in vocational rehabilitation and Autism for many years. Richard Kriner has been involved with research and exploring the best practices, policy development, and implementing many new Autism focused service modules across a wide variety of professional advisory and oversight roles. We are delighted to have Richard on the show with us today. Welcome, Richard.

Richard: Thank you I appreciate the opportunity to come and speak with you guys today.

Rick: So Richard, how did you get involved with working with Autism?

Richard: I got started with the Autism stuff. I’d say it was probably, 2008? And really walked into a…a special opportunity and it was kind of uh, a matter of being in the right place in the right time and I was able to come in and support the agency as an Uh. A liaison as part of a grant that DARS was doing with um. With VCU RRTC, about evidence-based researched to learn more about ways we can be active and supportive of VR consumers with Autism.

Anne: So Richard you have a unique perspective on turning your disability into a superpower.

Richard: Yeah, it’s been funny as you say a superpower… I just had a conversation with my son last night. My son about a year ago he was diagnosed with Autism. Um. So I had been doing this kind of work for about years before this came up and Um. One of the things that I realized is that self-determination’s a real big thing and…and I think what pops up very often with our folks with Autism is that some of our cognitive differences. Uh. Things like Uh. An ability to Uh. To…to uh. Memorize something that they…they look at on a piece of paper, a photographic memory, or that ability to really be hyper focused in on something and attends to details. Um. And um. On a really high level or when we do a good job at matching somebody and we clear our fits with our interests, and our passion, that just. That level of enthusiasm and 100% focus for what it is they’re doing. Those kind of things to me – they are absolute superpowers. And I think that businesses they’re really looking to kind of innovate and be competitive and…and bring in the best talent. They’re realizing that there’s this untapped pool of folks with these superpowers that are indeed going to add to the bottom line of their business.

Anne: Well, Richard that’s Uh… Your son’s comment is just, that’s um. Perfect and inspiring. We got goose bumps here. I mean this is… this is right in line with what… what we’ve been discussing with in the last week and I… I’d like to know too, what was it like finding out your son has Autism and at the same time your wonderful work in this…in this field, how has that influenced you or, refocused you in your career?

Richard: That’s Uh… that’s a good question. There was definitely a kind of personal um. Investment in the work that I’m doing but it was a game changer when I found out about my son. Um. To the extent that it kind of shifted from … I’m doing this because I want to help others because I had these experiences some positive experiences and some challenging experiences um. that were really kind of painful. And I don’t want folks to have to go through that, I want to help them um. have positive experiences. But when…when I found out about my son a lot of Um. My perspective went to, this investment that I’m making or partnering with other folks at the agency, And, Um. Community providers, and um. Local education agencies, that…that this opportunity to pave the way for a better and brighter future is so significant, and it’s something that I think about every day. This idea.

Rick: Richard Kriner, thank you for being on the podcast today.

Richard: Jimmy Fraley works for Sprint, now and has a great job, friends, and is moving ahead in the telecommunications industry but his journey has not always been an easy one. Jimmy has Autism. Throughout his early childhood and into his teenage years he struggled in schools, and structured organizations, had difficulties, and finally dropped out of school.

Anne: He attempted education on his own which didn’t turn out well, until he got involved in a vocational rehabilitation which helped him gain skills and his GED and started him on a career track. Jimmy has had to overcome not only the typical challenges of living with Autism, but has found a high demand job where he can excel with some of his unique skill sets that naturally accommodates his sensitivity to light. We welcome Jimmy Fraley to the podcast.

Jimmy: Thank you.

Richard: we always like to start this conversation particularly about Autism with a something that many people say which is, if you’ve met one person with Autism, then you’ve met one person with Autism. Tell us what it’s like to be you and live with Autism.

Jimmy: Um. It’s a very… it’s a very hard challenge to overcome. A lot of people give criticism. They judge real fast – struggled with school my whole life. I didn’t have any problems with students or teachers but the school system did not just like the fact that I was a little different than other students and they um. Uh. Fought me being homeschooled and everything.

Richard: tell us about your vocational rehabilitation program Jimmy.

Jimmy: Um. Getting a job was a hard thing for me to do and of course going to Wilson Rehab I actually got my GED and it helped me a lot to become successful and get a job at Sprint. I went to a GED program with Kathy Crowder and got my GED and she helped me and did a great job and helped me get my GED and Jale helped me with my testing.

Anne: What kinds of things did you do to get ready for your GED?

Jimmy: Um. We just studied and uh. She helped me uh. Get through the paragraphs and help me learn what areas I needed to study and learn to take tests to be successful.

Rick: Mm-hum

Anne: Jimmy, what was high school like for you?

Jimmy: Um. I was very popular in high school. A lot of students liked me. Got along with the teachers really well. The teachers really liked me. The school system however gave me a very hard time because they said I couldn’t keep up and wasn’t as interactive and fast paced as the other students. Um. They did multiple things. Kept sending me in and out of class to go to uh. To go to guidance counseling and everything because they… they wanted me to be like the rest of the school system.

Anne: Yeah. How did that… how did that affect you? How do you think that you were able to move past that? Because obviously you’ve gotten to the point where you’ve really… you’ve done an amazing job here with your… with your career and your moving forward. So, what are the other types of things that you’ve learned from that experience I guess it’s gotten you here today?

Jimmy: Basically I’ve kind of took things into on my hands.

Anne: Mm-hum.

Jimmy: I went and I’ve noticed that it just wasn’t working. So, I dropped out when I was 16 years old and when I uh. Dropped out I said, I need to get some help and try to maybe do some homeschooling and I went homeschooling had some financial problem with my family, and couldn’t afford to continue with that.

Anne: Mm-hum.

Rick: So what brought you to vocational rehabilitation?

Jimmy: Um. Cindy Basset actually. I had spoken with her in the past and she told me there were services ya’ll offer here that can help me get through with my GED that I was struggling with because I’ve been out of school for so long. Um. I wanted to take that advantage when I could and I came here to see if I could get it done and I did.

Rick: Well, Anne has a special guest on the line that would like to come into the conversation now.

Anne: That’s right Rick. Aaron Simmons who operates several touch-tone communications stores is key – not only in our discussion with Jimmy but with disability employment in general. I’d say we’d definitely give him a chance because of his business and industry. And while Aaron leads the way in hiring he also is a key advisor to vocational rehabilitation programs as they develop their talent pipelines that help connect VR consumers to jobs. And is Jimmy’s boss.

Rick: Welcome, Aaron we’re so glad to have you on the show. Can you tell us what it’s like having Jimmy as an employee at your store?

Aaron: Absolutley. It’s been awesome. Jimmy comes in everyday on time. Uh. You know, he’s dresses properly, he comes in, he has a smile on his face, and everybody gets along. There’s never any problems too big for Jimmy to handle. So we definitely love having Jimmy in our store.

Anne: Aaron, we’ve been thrilled to see Jimmy overcome significant challenges and in particular his sensitivity to light. And it seems the store is just a natural fit for him, particularly in this workstation that you’ve set up. How hard was it to accommodate?

Aaron: There’s nothing we have to do especially for him or that he asks us to do for him to accommodate himself. So there’s Uh. He’s just like a normal employee, just like any other person.

Rick: Aaron, some people with Autism struggle with social relationships. How does Jimmy fit in with your business model at the store where he works?

Aaron: I think Jimmy brings a smile to everybody’s face here. Everybody gets along with Jimmy. Um. We all sit down, talk, and goof around. You know, Jimmy gets along with just about everybody. He is up front just as much as he is in the back. And uh, uh. Once again, we’re just happy that he is here with us in our store.

Anne: That’s great Aaron. Thank you for joining us. Now Jimmy, for a guy who struggle his entire life, had trouble fitting in, and found a path to success, what does it feel like to hear your boss talk about you in such a positive way?

Jimmy: It’s very shocking. That uh. I’m very happy that he…that I’m doing good in Sprint, and I’m happy to be there. It’s great to work with these people. The main thing is uh. I do get along really well in the workforce, and it really is a successful job. Uh. It’s very different from school. The accommodations at Sprint are kind of given to me – without me asking. It was kind of in the back room. Um. And I was provided with special magnifying lights and stuff to use on phones and it was kind of in a darker area. So it helped me a lot.

Rick: Mm-hum. Tell us…tell us about the actual work you’re doing.

Jimmy: I repair phones, I take them apart, Uh. I take and heat up glass, and take adhesive off of it and Uh. Just fix anything internally in any type of phone.

Rick: Okay. So uh, is it a low light area that you’re working in the store?

Jimmy: Yes, Sir.

Anne: Yeah, that’s big deal to me. I have a problem even connecting calls. I can’t even imagine doing what you’re doing. And, I give you a lot of credit… And you know this last question kind of speaks to what you’re saying about getting along with others. I had asked, how that impacted the workplace and how it was for the employees to work with you Jimmy.

Jimmy: It’s astonishing. It really is. It uh. I feel like I said, I feel like right now that I’m still kind of in a shock position. But um it’s very amazing I’m very, very, grateful for where I am at right now.

Anne: And that’s great. Do you feel like you’ve done it your way? I feel like I hear you saying that things weren’t working for you and you…you adjusted and made your life go in the direction that you wanted to. And to come here and go through all this difficult work and go through WWRC. Which seems to have really paid off but do you feel like you’ve done it the way you wanted too?

Jimmy: Uh. I definitely took the road that I took myself because uh. I was a certain way in school and be a certain so I took things in my own hands and I looked for people that I could adjust to and get along with a little better.

Anne: That’s great.

Rick: Let me ask you what your advice would be to someone who has Autism when they’re thinking about going to work.

Jimmy: Um. I would say uh. Try to find a job that fits you right and try to overcome what the system wants you to do and how they want you to be and just try to find your own path. Be successful.

Anne: So much of Jimmy’s Success is due to his GED. Earlier I asked Kathy Crowder his academic instructor what it was like working with Jimmy and what she would attribute his success to in the educational environment.

Cathy: Uh. I think Jimmy would agree, that when I first met Jimmy it was probably a little awkward and then we set our boundaries and Jimmy said it would be best if he worked in my office. Which is where he set himself up every day he went to work with me. He did not sit out in the class room with the other students. He had a little station back in the back with a computer. And what was so wonderful about Jimmy is he is a true adult learner who knows himself. And because of that I would make suggestions about things he could do in preparing himself and he would say: “That may work or that may not work best for me”. In addition, Jimmy would sometimes – if I would give him assignments to do, because as a GED student he had to work sometimes outside of class also do extra assignments I would give him to do. And he would he had my phone number here at work – he would leave me messages of things you were doing, Khan Academy – things that were working for him. He would also find other websites and when he would come into work and say “…have you ever tried this Cathy?” with students which was very helpful. In addition, when he was in my office working, I would have him with other students working in my classroom. And I would sometimes need his assistance in doing technology issues with the computers in order to go through different pieces of software we needed to find. So he, he was actually very helpful. Jimmy then, once he got his GED, you could tell such a difference in his level of confidence. And he actually then called that same phone number here at work and let me know when he started another job. He had another job leaving here and then with Sprint. And then he actually showed up on our door one day to tell us about the Sprint job because he was so enthusiastic about it. And he also was also passing out his business cards which we all held on too just in case we ever needed it. But, I think that we saw a degree of confidence and it was because he was a self-directed learner; who now knows his own abilities and he was able to use those in order to achieve a goal. – which I believe has opened doors to him that otherwise may not have been open. So, I applaud him.

Rick: I think we all do.

Anne: Yeah.

Rick: I think you’re an inspiration. I think that part of this podcast the courageous story.

Jimmy: Um. I’m very happy and like I said it’s a great place to be right now. I’m hoping to get further in life. I’m always striving to getting more and more better and I feel good.

Rick: So, one very quick rehab rewind.

(Rewinding sound.)

Rick: …and a comment from Jimmy’s instructor who makes a critical point about adult learners – which Jimmy is.

Cathy: We have students who are adult learners. Who know what they’re hoping to achieve. And when you have that goal – a goal that is important to them, and the environment that supports that learning; it’s very rewarding and reinforcing to them when they are able to meet those goals and ultimately, go out and get a job.

Anne: Get the job. And that is the key in the Workforce Innovation and Opportunities Act. When we think about those key measures: business engagement, skill gain, and particularly earnings – which is obtained in the second quarter. Jimmy you soon would have been at Sprint for a year. If you don’t mind me asking, does this job give you the kind of income to support you in the life you want to live?

Jimmy: The environment I am at Sprint right now; is definitely a very stable job. I definitely get more and more phones there each and every day. I get commissions off of those phones. Plus, I get a base salary. So, I make pretty decent money. So, I’m very successful and I’m happy where I’m at. I make plenty enough money to support a family, and even enough money that I am looking at houses… and, I’m going to buy me a house here in the next year or so. I definitely have plenty enough income coming in and it will get more and more each and every year.

Rick: That is extraordinary… That is extraordinary… We couldn’t be more excited! How does it feel to look at your future with such a financial stability? Is that different from what you’ve experienced in the past?

Jimmy: Yes. It’s totally different. I came from a family that worked in the coal mines and it was shut down. We lived on the streets for many, many years. I had to live with my Grandma. I struggled… I had a lot of people criticize because I didn’t make financial needs and they didn’t want me around ‘em. Now that I am having financial needs, it’s definitely… people are starting to look the other way in everything…

Rick: I want to know how it feels to be a trailblazer. Let me explain that. When Aaron Simmons came over and was on our Advisory Committee this week; he said, “You know, what’s happening here is amazing. Because there’s a whole new talent pipeline of qualified employees and workers that we’ve not thought about. And Jimmy sets the standard.” And, because of your experience there, they’ve hired two others. And, Aaron was very, very clear with us – he wants to hire more individuals with disabilities because of the example you’ve set. And so, I want to know, “what does it feel like to be a trailblazer?”

Jimmy: It’s definitely shocking and very, very amazing to feel that way.

Rick: What’s next in your future?

Jimmy: Next thing in my future is to keep striving more, and keep doing the things I’ve been doing and finding my own path.

Rick: Awesome! That’s just wonderful. Any final reflections on Vocational Rehabilitation – if you had to say to someone… “what’s the best part of Vocational Rehabilitation”?

Jimmy: They help a lot with the structure and how they help other students more on their level instead of making them fit in with everyone else. I notice that a lot of the students get to do kind of their own thing – but, still learn and be there and still become successful . It’s more freedom; and teachers here help a lot with that. And they help you one-on-one more than a whole classroom.

Rick: Jimmy we want you to stay in touch with us as you continue writing your courageous story of vocational rehabilitation. Next, we’re talking with the vocational rehabilitation professional that’s moving at the speed of business – with Sprint and, Touchtel Communications, the company that Jimmy works for. And Jimmy, thank you for being with us today.

Anne: Jimmy, thank you, we really do appreciate you very much!

Jimmy: Thank you.

VR: Briefing room

Rick: We are with Matt Hooven, who’s a vocational instructor and works at Wilson Workforce and Rehabilitation Center. Welcome to the Podcast Matt.

Matt: Thank you very much. It’s a pleasure to be here.

Rick: So, you work in Vocational Rehabilitation. And one of the drivers of the new law the Workforce Innovation and Opportunities Act is engaging business. And, tell us the story of how you were able to get our students and build your curriculum with the local Sprint company.

Matt: I had a contact from a local Sprint owner – so, it was a contract store owner that owns and manages several stores… looking for people who can do the cell-phone, smart device repair. And, he had heard that we were teaching students to do that here. So, he had lots of questions. We were able to start having a conversation about – you, know – what our students were able to do; and, how that would be a good fit for his company. Eventually, we were able to send a couple of students his way that were hired.   We have lots of opportunities – if we had students in the right areas because he has a limited number of locations. But there is definitely a demand for the skills they had learned while they were with us.

Rick: How do you understand his business needs…? Then what they say – like my son in the Army says, “backwards plan” from that end objective of walking through the door with a credential or a skill that the employer needs? How do you work backwards from Sprint to the build the curriculum that you’re teaching.

Matt: A lot of that came in place with conversations with our advisory boards, with conversations with people in the business. We try to fill a vacuum in the workforce – where there’s a need. We are hoping to flex what we can train our students to do to so that they can fill that need. And, as most of us that use that technology a lot know… we use tablets now more and we use our cellphones more. And those devices are mobile and because they are mobile they tend to take a lot of damage. And, we depend on them a lot. Whereas, ten years ago, maybe it was a desktop or a laptop computer; now a lot of it is done on these mobile devices. And, a lot of the Community Colleges – a lot of the other programs – are very limited in the amount of training that they’re giving people to fix and repair and keep those things updated and give them any maintenance that they need. So, about a year and a half ago we started really taking our program – you know, maybe a fourth of it that direction. We still do the laptops, the regular networking, all the computer support but we just tried to specialize on it a little bit but maybe there wasn’t a lot of people out there that knew it.

Rick: But, that specialization really was based on you recognizing a need in the workforce.

Matt: Yes. There’s a vacuum there and we have tried to put our students in to it.

Rick: That’s just smart programing.

Matt: It’s paid off. I feel like we’re a little bit ahead of the curve on this one… so, now the challenge is: what’s the next thing?

Rick: And, you have developed some relationships with other IT, Phone, communications-based companies. Tell us about those that you’re working with that… How that need gets reflected in your curriculum back in the classroom.

Matt: Sure. We’ve had lots of conversations with Target Mobile. Target kind of have changed their direction for how they support and sell their mobile technology. And they have the kiosks in their stores. About a year ago, they started really changing the way they were selling those items. And, they needed people who could support them. And, so they came to us as well. So, picked up some of the things they were needing… conversations with them… a lot of emails a lot of phone calls. Another one is You Break-I Fix which is kind of an up-and-coming company that’s been around for just a few years. …Mostly on the East coast. They have a lot of franchise company’s… are growing pretty fast in Virginia. One of our students – a graduate – went out on his own and found a job there. And, he called me back and said, “The boss says they need more of me”. And, so that was a happy thing to find out.

Rick: That’s fantastic!

Matt: That started a conversation to where… I could talk directly to them about what skills they were looking for and what areas… So, as our students graduate there are certain areas that geographically that our students are going into that I can pick up the phone and I can let them know I have a graduating student coming to their area and it really increases their opportunity to get a job.

Rick: What are you just dying to tell me about disability employment that I‘ve not asked about yet?

Matt: That it’s important. That it matters. That there’s value in it that is more than what we would calculate just looking at it from the outside.   The diversity that people who have a disability bring to the workplace… The way they impact the people that they work around.. The way they impact your customers. The overall attitude – the can-do attitude. The commitment to succeed… It’s contagious. It makes us all reevaluate what we do every day. I think it helps it us all do a little bit better job. Before I came here, I was quick to hire someone who had a disability. Because, over and over again, they have proven themselves to be able to do the job. And, that they were a very positive impact to the culture of our workplace.

Rick: Matt Hooven is a vocational instructor at the Wilson Workforce and Rehabilitation Center. Matt, thanks for being on the podcast today.

Matt: Thank you very much. I enjoyed it.

Anne: Rick, what a great episode! wonderful podcast!

Rick: Oh, its wonderful! I am so inspired by listening to Jimmy and Matt Hooven talk about business engagement. It should inspire us all to continue the conversation about jobs-driven training.

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Rick: Coming soon here in the VR Workforce Studio, Kaylee Merick. She is on the job a year after being hired by CVS and we’ll learn more about Mock Stores being set up all across the country in centers like WWRC to prepare individuals with disabilities for job that are plentiful in CVS stores. We also check in with Steve Wooderson of CSAVR on Vision 2020 and we are really excited about young woman who found herself in the perfect story of business engagement, hard to fill health occupations positions and vocational rehabilitation training. The story of Odessa Johnson on the job with Americare Plus working as a successful PCA with hearing loss. If you’d like to know more about the WWRC Foundation Anne we can find you at?

Anne: you can find us at our website

Rick: I’m Rick Sizemore and these are the courageous stories of vocational rehabilitation.

Announcer: Support for the distribution and publication of the VR Workforce Studio comes from the Jesse Ball DuPont Foundation, Dominion Power, CVS Health and the Virginia Manufacturers Association.