we welcome Khalil Watson. Khalil was paralyzed in a shooting during his high school years. He recently defied the odds though, and walked across the stage at Reynolds Community College with the help of a robotic exoskeleton, and he received his Associate’s Degree.
VR Workforce Singers: VR Workforce Studio.
Rick Sizemore: How long does it take to get from your home to the school in a wheelchair?
Khalil Watson: It took me about an hour.
Betsy Civilette: Wow.
Rick Sizemore: Wow.
Betsy Civilette: And that’s an electric?
Khalil Watson: Yeah.
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: This is probably one of the most exciting stories to come along in a while.
VR Workforce Singers: Big. Big. Inspiration. Big. Big.
Rick Sizemore: Betsy, in our Big Inspiration Showcase today, we welcome Khalil Watson. Khalil was paralyzed in a shooting during his high school years. He recently defied the odds though, and walked across the stage at Reynolds Community College with the help of a robotic exoskeleton, and he received his Associate’s Degree.
Betsy Civilette: Well Rick, Khalil now joins us from his home in Richmond, Virginia to talk about his journey, vocational rehabilitation, and his plans to continue his education. Well, welcome Khalil, it’s a pleasure to have you on the podcast.
Khalil Watson: Thanks for having me.
Rick Sizemore: Khalil, again, welcome and congratulations. This year must have been an amazing day for you. We’ve seen the video of graduation but what was it like for you to be there and receiving a standing ovation as you walked the stage?
Khalil Watson: It was actually May 15th, 2023. On the day of graduation, it felt like a dream in a way. The fact that I graduated didn’t really hit me until a few days later, after doing some reflecting and all I had to endure to get to this point. I mean, all the late nights and early mornings, the all-nighters that I pulled. Having to ride my chair downtown sometimes to get to school because our family and I don’t have a, an accessible vehicle. All of those things is what let me know that this is reality and not a dream. It was, it, it was definitely a great experience, though.
Betsy Civilette: Khalil, you’ve had a spinal cord injury since high school and you use a wheelchair. What was it like attending college?
Khalil Watson: Not only do I use a wheelchair, but I’m a C5-6… I’m a C5-C6 quadriplegic so I, I, I, I don’t really have, I have limited use of my limbs. My hands are partially impaired so, it was a, it, it was definitely a huge adjustment, you know, going, going from being able to disabled and just trying to figure out how I could be as efficient as, as possible.
Betsy Civilette: Well, you said you don’t have an accessible vehicle, so sometimes you had to actually ride your wheelchair to school, is that correct?
Khalil Watson: Yeah, that was, that was prior… So, prior to Covid, I was using public transportation to, to get back and forth from home, from home and to school, and visa-versa. And there would be times where I would miss my bus, missing the… There would, there would be times where I would miss the GRTC bus to get downtown for school and I would have to ride my chair all the way down there because I would, I missed the bus.
Rick Sizemore: How long does it take to get from your home to the school in a wheelchair?
Khalil Watson: It took me about a hour.
Betsy Civilette: Wow.
Rick Sizemore: Wow.
Betsy Civilette: And that’s an electric?
Khalil Watson: Yeah.
Betsy Civilette: Chair I’m assuming.
Khalil Watson: Right.
Betsy Civilette: Yes. Now, any accommodations from Reynolds or through DARS that, that, that you received that, that assisted helping you overcome these barriers to get to school?
Khalil Watson: Yeah, so DARS, I was given a, I was given a laptop, and I was also given a trackball mouse, and this, this software called Dragon, where I’m able to speak into the laptop and it’s, it’s, it’s a voice-to-text command. Yeah, so, if, if it wasn’t for you all, you all are pretty much the people who got the ball rolling for me, and then the, the, the people from J. Sargeant Reynolds had also helped with a few accommodations as well. Such as peer, peer note takers and getting, getting extra time on tests and things like that.
Rick Sizemore: Well, that’s awesome.
Betsy Civilette: Yeah.
Rick Sizemore: Was there ever a time where you said, “I’m not sure if I can do this. I’m just gonna, I’m gonna throw in the towel.” Was the ever a time when it, it just didn’t seem like it was going to happen? And, and how did you get through those times?
Khalil Watson: I would be lying if I said I never experienced times like those. I did but the reason why I was able to keep going is that I know things can always be worse than what they are and I, I’ve made too much progress to quit now. Which is why I decided to keep persevering.
Rick Sizemore: I think that’s one reason why people listen to this podcast; they want to hear from people like you. You have some type of inner drive to ride a wheelchair an hour to get to school and take the, take on these challenges. You’re, you’re an amazing example of what it takes to overcome challenges. So, my hat’s off to you, friend.
Khalil Watson: Thank you.
Betsy Civilette: Well, we are very fortunate to have Kendra Johnson on the podcast today. Kendra, you are Khalil’s rehabilitation counselor at DARS. What is your reaction, first to this incredible accomplishment, Khalil’s graduation?
Kendra Johnson: Well first, of course, I’m very proud of Khalil for overcoming, overcoming all the challenges. So, it was, like Khalil informed me that he had graduated and right after that, that’s when I started seeing him everywhere. Through like social media, on the news. So, it was definitely a great experience to see him accomplishing his goals.
Betsy Civilette: Could you elaborate on some of the DARS services that Khalil was provided?
Kendra Johnson: Okay, so like Khalil mentioned, prior to me… First of all, I took over the case in 2019. I believe that his former vocational counselor, she had retired.
Betsy Civilette: Mm-hmm.
Kendra Johnson: So, I took over his caseload… I mean take, took over his case on my caseload. So, he was already working with AT, he was already enrolled in school at J. Sargeant Reynolds. So, he had received the laptop as well as the mouse and other assistive technology at that time. What me and Khalil are working on now is his, his transportation barrier. So, he will be working along with Driving Rehab for Excellence, they’re located in Chantilly, Virginia, to receive his behind-the-wheel training. He also did go to Wilson where he received a driving evaluation as well.
Betsy Civilette: So, what kind of supports, Kendra, do you see in the future as Khalil sets his sights on going back to school at VCU to get his Social Work Degree?
Kendra Johnson: So, the biggest supports that we’re looking at from DARS right now, of course, is getting his transportation. So, once he is done with the behind-the-wheel, then of course, we’ll be looking into getting the driving modification, the vehicle modifications for the vehicle that he chooses, in order for him to get back and forth from school. He will be attending VCU. So, he will be going into their social work program, I believe, Khalil?
Khalil Watson: Yes. That’s correct.
Kendra Johnson: So, that’s the biggest thing we’re working on now is his driving along with supporting him at VCU and what type of accommodations or technology that we may support him with.
Rick Sizemore: So, Khalil, why Social Work?
Khalil Watson: So, I’ve always been passionate about helping others. I feel like the, the things that I’ve experienced will allow me to be able to connect with and understand individuals who have a similar or worse situation than mine.
Rick Sizemore: Well, what would you say to someone who had that similar circumstance to, to your own? About vocational rehabilitation, maybe there’s someone who’s listening to this podcast that’s kind of feeling stuck and they need an answer. What would you say to them about vocational rehabilitation?
Khalil Watson: I would tell them that if work is something that they still desire to do. There are ways for you to achieve those goals you, you just have to, you know, figure out what, what, what resources you may need and, and, and, and, and, and do whatever it is that you wanna do so you can accomplish those goals. To be honest, I’ve, I’ve, I’ve, I’ve always been this way, like, like, like I’ve always been determined and just, and just strongminded, you know. I would, I would tell the next person that, I truly believe with hard work and dedication, anything is possible. So, just keep going, regardless of your circumstances or the situation that you may be going through at the moment.
Rick Sizemore: That’s a great, that is a great perspective and I know that will help many people who are listening to us. Kendra, how does it make you feel to hear that?
Kendra Johnson: It makes me feel good. Khalil is a great consumer to work with. He’s been very patient throughout the VR process, he’s been very determined. So, that makes our relationship good, you know, good to work with because, you know, I can count on him to, you know, just, to just kind of trust the process. So, some people can become, you know, agitated but he’s always been, you know, patient and determined. And that just makes me, as his counselor, want to work harder for him, and advocate for him more, and to try to get things pushed through.
Rick Sizemore: Yeah. Khalil, this story is being written. It’s, it’s in process and what I look forward to is a day when we have you back on the podcast talking about how you’re driving the modified vehicle, and how you have a degree in Social Work, and how you’re in, engaged in the world.
Betsy Civilette: Well, thank…
Khalil Watson: Sounds good.
Betsey Civilette: Well good, we can’t wait.
Khalil Watson: Looking forward…
Betsy Civilette: Thank you both for joining us today.
Rick Sizemore: Yeah, Khalil Watson is pursuing a degree in Social Work with the support of his vocational counselor, Kendra Johnson. They both joined us today from Richmond, Virginia. Thank you.
Kendra Johnson: Thank you.
Khalil Watson: Thanks for having me.
Rick Sizemore: Exciting news from Wilson Workforce and Rehabilitation Center, they have a new VR Program Director, Alison Shaner. The center’s new executive director just started at Wilson.
Betsy Civilette: Throughout her career, she has worked in education and with people with disabilities. So, we are delighted to welcome you to DARS and to the podcast today, Alison.
Alison Shaner: Thank you so much for having me today.
Rick Sizemore: Yeah, great. Hey, Alison, tell us about yourself.
Alison Shaner: I have been in special education for about 18 years now.
Betsy Civilette: Wow.
Alison Shaner: I have worked with a wide variety of students and clients all, with all age ranges, with different varying support needs. I have been a teacher for the blind and visual impaired for an extended period of time. I have worked extensively with students with multiple disabilities, particularly Autism. And I have also done some orientation and mobility work as well, as part of the vision services. So, I have a pretty wide, varied background in special education as a teacher. And then I transitioned into administration. Started as a special education coordinator and then moved into the director of Harrisonburg City Public Schools Special Education Department in 2020. Which was a, a exciting time to take on a new role.
Betsy Civilette: For sure, yeah.
Alison Shaner: But it’s been a wonderful, wonderful experience. I have learned a lot through that and so I’m very excited now to, to join Wilson.
Rick Sizemore: Where’d you go to college?
Alison Shaner: I went to, my undergraduate degree is at, from James Madison and then I have masters’ degrees in Special Education and Administration from Radford. And I am continuing with Radford now, I’m working on my Doctorate in Leadership.
Betsy Civilette: Well, that’s wonderful and Rick, himself, is a Redford Highlander.
Alison Shaner: Woo-hoo!
Rick Sizemore: Several decades ago.
Alison Shaner: Well, I keep going back. I don’t know why.
Betsy Civilette: Well, that’s great.
Alison Shaner: But I keep going back.
Betsy Civilette: That’s wonderful. Alison, so how does it feel to be the new incoming director and what are you most excited about as you take on this role?
Alison Shaner: I am really excited to work in a, a phenomenal center that’s dedicated to supporting individuals with disabilities. In education, in, from K-12 perspective, right, we know that those transition years can be really hard. And Wilson, well WWRC has always been kind of a beacon of light for families, for communities, to know that this resource was out there. And so, I am extremely to be a part of that opportunity; to enable individuals with disabilities, to live, work, and play in the communities of their choosing. Which is what we all want, right?
Betsy Civilette: Right.
Alison Shaner: So, I’m very excited about the opportunities to work with people that are dedicated, in a center that is dedicated to that work.
Rick Sizemore: Well, that’s great. Hey, I was in the dining hall at 6:00 this morning at Wilson and ran into some students. They have a message for you.
WWRC Students: Welcome Alison Shaner!
STUDENT: I’d like to welcome the myth, the legend, herself, Alison Shaner. Yes, sir.
Rick Sizemore: “The myth…”
Betsy Civilette: Oh, I…
Rick Sizemore: “The legend, Alison Shaner.”
Betsy Civilette: That’s awesome.
Alison Shaner: That’s, that’s great! What a welcome. I, I really appreciate that.
Rick Sizemore: That’s great. Alison joins us next month to continue this conversation. She’s the director of Wilson Workforce and Rehabilitation Center. Alison, all the best to you and the team at Wilson as you take on the leadership of this amazing organization.
Alison Shaner: Thank you so much, again, for this opportunity.
Rick Sizemore: Our conversation on spinal cord injuries and vocational rehabilitation continues with Paula Martin and Elisabeth Drake.
Betsy Civilette: And Paula is an assistive technology specialist with DARS, and the Virginia Assistive Technology System, or VATS, and also with No Wrong Door Virginia. Elisabeth is an engagement technology specialist and recreational therapist with the Sheltering Arms Institute. Well, welcome Paula and Elisabeth, we are so happy you are joining us.
Paula Martin: Thank you.
Elisabeth Drake: Thank you.
Rick Sizemore: Yeah, we just heard this remarkable story of Khalil Watson, his journey through VR. It’s amazing to hear about his successes and realize how powerful vocational rehabilitation and assistive technology can actually be in the life of a person who, against all odds, is continuing to push toward a goal in their life. The Sheltering Arms Institute has a wonderful partnership with Virginia DARS. Most of our listeners are familiar with DARS but, Elisabeth, can you give us a quick overview of the Sheltering Arms Institute?
Elisabeth Drake: Of course. We are a state-of-the-art, 114-bed, inpatient rehab facility. Caring for patients who have experienced spinal cord injury, brain injury, stroke, severe burns, transplants, polytrauma, and other impacts on health and function that require rehab with medical oversight from a physician. And we’re located just west of Short Pump at the intersection of 288 and 64.
Betsy Civilette: Great! Well, Paula, turning to you but, Elisabeth, feel free to jump in at any point. Let’s hear more about the work being done through this partnership.
Paula Martin: Sure. I met Allison Clark, again, through a No Wrong Door meeting. You had Allison on your podcast not too long ago. And she’s the community coordinator there at Sheltering Arms and as we got to talking about what they do and what we do, we decided this would be a great partnership. So, we kind of came together with a goal of finding items that were inexpensive, pretty easy to learn to use, but that had a big impact on client independence.
Elisabeth Drake: Yes! So, through devices that was lent to us from VATS, we set up a room that is like a demonstration room where patients are able to come in and take a look around, we give them a brief overview of whatever might suit their case, their need, their interests and goals best. And they have an opportunity to actually try all those devices to see; do they want to try all this when they’re home to meet their goals. Whether that’s thriving in the community, going back to school, returning to work, and when they go through there and they get really excited about seeing possibilities that exist, then we link them up with VATS and DARS so they can continue with thriving in what, whichever goal/direction they have next after they leave us.
Betsy Civilette: And can you give us a quick example of, of one of these devices that they might use?
Elisabeth Drake: We’ll go with the spinal cord injury example. They sometimes will be a little even shy to say that they like to go back to work, go back to school, or even simply, “I wanna be independent in the home.” So, I’ll take them down there and I’ll just give them a little slip of paper and tell them to read it out loud and it will say, “Alexa, turn the lights on,” and then the lights will come on in the room. And from there we go into ways that they could use it to be safe in the home, and connect with others, and be able to have that freedom and independence to simply call their best friend or, with communication, call if they ever need something such as an emergency situation.
Betsy Civilette: Well, that’s, it’s a fabulous room, I’ve been in it myself, taken pictures and it’s such a great resource. It was such an inspiring moment to see Khalil walking the stage equipped in a robotic exoskeleton and graduate from college. Elisabeth, what can you tell us about this incredible technology?
Elisabeth Drake: The exoskeleton is a wearable device that performs movements, like walking, for people with an injury or a disease who lack that voluntary movement. It can kind of serve two functional purposes. So, walking recovery or exercise and community participation. So, for example, we’ve seen people go from not being able to walk to walking again, and we’ve also used different things like sitting balance, increasing their cardiovascular fitness, and for the case of Khalil, walking across the stage for graduation.
Betsy Civilette: What’s on the horizon to help individuals with disabilities who want to work?
Paula Martin: You know, it’s been so exciting to see. When I first started as an OT in 1984, one room, it took a whole room for us to fill up for being able to answer the phone, turn on a light, turn your television on, and it was thousands of dollars. Now, we can say, “Hey, Alexa turn the light on,” for under a hundred bucks easily. So, because of that and because it’s more mainstream, we’re seeing now lots of other mainstream devices, such as the Microsoft 360 has a lot of digital inclusion, the Mac has lots of facial gestures. I think people being able to take classes from home and work from home has been so amazing. So, sometimes it’s the device and sometimes it’s just learning how to use your mainstream device.
Betsy Civilette: And my aging parents, I’ve taught them a lot on their phone, yes.
Paula Martin: That’s right.
Betsy Civilette: They’re amazed at what it can do.
Rick Sizemore: Well, we’re all drawn to these amazing new technologies and the developments that are emerging in our very midst every day but sometimes it’s the simple things that means the most. Paula, what’s available in the day-to-day routines at VATS and maybe through the partnership that brings people help? People who, who may be in circumstances that are even similar to Khalil’s.
Paula Martin: I think having Elisabeth and the folks at SAI and the other partners we have across the state, Sportable and Wilson, we’re able to demonstrate… There’s only four of us at VATS and so we don’t have that hands-on, a lot of the hands-on types of opportunities that we would like to have. So, using them as partners has been so great. Even digital picture frame that helps someone remember appointments or connects them with their loved ones. A lot of inclusion and when you first have a disability, there’s a whole lot of adjustment that has to happen. So, if we can include them with their family and friends, it can be amazing.
Elisabeth Drake: Yeah! I think that in the day-to-day, when we get patients here they’re just starting to think about, you know, out of the hospital, and thinking about the next step of going home, and being in the community, and sometimes we start simple. It’s what is already in their hand, like Paula was saying, we will set them up with simple voice control on their phone for people who are unable to hold their phone and use it or unable to have that dexterity to call. We’ll put things in the room like a phone stand, that’s relatively pretty cheap, you can find it on Amazon. It’s the simple little things that change their whole world and perspective and from there they start being more open to listening to what other things are out there, like a simple swivel tray table when you’re trying to get up from the couch. And we feel them out to see how far in the technology world they’re willing to listen but it really does start with those simple, daily, lower technology, lower expensive pieces of technology that we have here for demonstration.
Paula Martin: And through that partnership with No Wrong Door, we’ve been able to expand it, even to some simple gaming or things that help people kinda wanna continue going on, going on with life.
Betsy Civilette: Mm-hmm. Share with us a message of hope. I mean, especially for maybe those folks who’ve been told, “You’ll never work,” or, “You can’t do this job because of your disability.”
Elisabeth Drake: I would say, seeing this frequently for people who are newly admitted and sometimes they’re even too apprehensive to say the words out loud, “I want to go back to work,” because they think it’s so farfetched from reality, to never rule it out, advocate for what you want even if it’s in something in the back of your mind you’re scared of saying. Be open to trying new approaches, new technologies, things that you never thought you’d be willing to try. And connect with every agency that is available. That’s in DARS, they’re here to really bridges the gap of what you think is impossible to the realistic ways that they can make it happen, and simply just taking in the information and connecting with them is going to open so many doors, not just now but down the road.
Paula Martin: I remember my very first client, he was 16, broke his neck, got his drafting from here at Wilson, but then was not able to get a job because the Drafting Department was on the second floor and nobody cared, nobody did anything about it. So, now with the ADA, the online support, with DARS, there’s so, so, so many, many more opportunities. So, I just say, hang on and it’s gonna be okay.
Rick Sizemore: Well, it’s so nice to have you both on, on the podcast today. Elisabeth Drake and Paula Martin, thank you for being with us.
Paula Martin: Thank you.
Betsy Civilette: Okay.
Elisabeth Drake: Thank you.
Rick Sizemore: Well, it’s time for our National Clearinghouse report with the always entertaining and informative Heather Servais. Welcome, Heather.
Heather Servais: Hey, Rick, good to talk to you again.
Rick Sizemore: You too. We’re all still reeling from Khalil Watson’s story. What is your reaction to it?
Heather Servais: I love hearing Khalil’s story and especially about how VR was able to help, you know, secure some assistive technology to support training and really help Khalil on his path to his ultimate goal of being a social worker.
Rick Sizemore: Yeah, it’s, it’s very cool. Hey, what do you have in the Clearinghouse for us this month?
Heather Servais: Got a couple things. The first I want to share is the NCRTM Programs and Services page and this is a feature of the NCRTM which offers employment-related resources. So, like Khalil, you know, making the decision to go to school or go to work, can be a lot and so the Programs and Services page offers a variety of resources on self-advocacy, how to get training, job-seeking tools, research, and career advancement. So, for job seekers with disabilities, this can be a really great starting point to utilize as you’re considering your, your options for employment and even for VR counselors, this is a great resource for you to help inform your vocational counseling and guidance sections with your customers so that you can share these resources directly with them.
Rick Sizemore: Amazing.
Heather Servais: Yeah! It’s a really great…
Rick Sizemore: I love it!
Heather Servais: Yeah, it’s perfect and it’s a really great tool for, for our customers that are looking for employment and everything that it takes. Whether it’s training or, you know, just building those self-advocacies to prepare you for employment. The second resource I have is a, is a brand-new material that was just added to the NCRTM library and it’s called, Partnering With DVR To Build Your Pathway To Employment and it was created by the PEAK Parent Center. And this is a guide that covers topics to help individuals who are interested in learning a little bit more about the VR process. So, all of those things that VR is, that can, can be a lot to understand including; the eligibility requirements, about, learning about individualized plans for employment, informed choice, going over all of the timelines that you can expect, available services, even how to prepare for your first appointment with VR. And what I also like about this guide is that it’s translated into English, Spanish, and there’s a plain language version available as well.
Rick Sizemore: Great!
Heather Servais: The last thing I want to share with you is the Activities for Underserved Population Funding Opportunities. On May 31st, the US Department of Education Rehabilitation Services Administration announced a new funding opportunity under Assistance Listing Number 84.315C, which is the Activities for Underserved Populations. A purpose for the Activities for Underserved Populations Program is to improve the quality, access, and delivery of services and the outcomes of services provided under the Rehabilitation Act, especially services provided to individuals with disabilities from underserved backgrounds, and to increase the capacity of minority entities and Indian Tribes to participate in activities funded under the Rehabilitation Act. For this particular funding opportunity, the eligible applicants are minority entities and Indian Tribes and in the show notes, you’ll find the full definition of what that means. The application deadline for this funding opportunity is July 21st, 2023 at 11:59 pm Eastern Time. If you want to learn a little bit more about this opportunity, there’s information about the Activities for Underserved Populations competition at RSA.ED.GOV and I will include the direct link in the show notes. There’s also a pre-application slide deck and a lot of other resources for this opportunity that are available on the RSA Discretionary Grants page, which is located on the NCRTM. There is an email address and a competition Manager where you can ask any questions you may have. The competition Manager is Kristen Rhinehart-Fernandez and the email address is 315C@ed.gov. So, we hope you’ll check out that information. And then last but not least, just want to say congratulations and a very warm welcome to Wilson’s new Director, Alison Shaner.
Rick Sizemore: Absolutely.
Heather Servais: We’re excited to have you.
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.
Heather Servais: Absolutely, thanks for having me, Rick.
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.
Paula Martin: Yeah, I’m so excited. People are like, “Why are you so excited?” I’m like, “I’ve been waiting forever for this.”