Episode 86 VR Workforce Studio
The elevator speech that landed my dream job, the Christopher Spoden story.
Speaker 1: VR Workforce Studio.
Christopher: My elevator speech really got better over time and…
Rick Sizemore: Then the elevator. You got me for two minutes, sell yourself.
Speaker 4: Four, three, two, one.
Speaker 5: VR Workforce Studio, podcasting the sparks that ignite vocational rehabilitation through the inspiring stories of people with disabilities who have gone to work.
Speaker 2: Employer references by former clients
Speaker 5: As well as the professionals who have helped them.
Speaker 7: A job and a career, you got to look at how life changing this is.
Speaker 5: And the businesses who have filled their talent pipelines with workers that happen to have disabilities.
Speaker 8: To help expand registered apprenticeship.
Speaker 5: These are their stories.
Speaker 8: Because it’s such a great story to tell about people with disabilities.
Speaker 5: Now, here’s the host of the VR Workforce Studio, Rick Sizemore.
Rick Sizemore: Our guest on today’s show is the president of the National Rehabilitation Association, Dr. DeAnna Henderson. She joins us to talk about how NRA is reshaping their annual conference, planning now underway, with a focus on Covid-19 and race relations as we also approach international podcast day, we’re very excited about that. Over the past five years, we’ve talked with some amazing people with disabilities who have gone to work through vocational rehabilitation, from army vets who now drive trucks, to artists who draw by holding their pencil in their teeth, substance abuse specialists who were once in need of help, and now help others. People who have been in near death motorcycle and industrial accidents, who now work in executive, training, and educational positions.
And we’ve talked to our nation’s leaders in VR. The heads of organizations like CSAVR, WINTAC, the National Rehabilitation Association, and the NET (National Employment Team). And we’ve been involved in the creation of the VR national anthem, featuring George Dennehy. And sharing the story of how the Blue Man Group reaches out to people with autism. Well, what a journey it’s been, and we’re just getting started in our pursuit of podcasting the sparks that ignite VR, so Happy International Podcast Day and special thanks to everyone who’s helped us along the way in becoming one of America’s leading VR podcasts, especially the Wilson Workforce and Rehabilitation Center Foundation. Eric K. Johnson, the Podcast Talent Coach, of course, Dave Jackson from the School of Podcasting and Jim Rothrock, Kathy Hayfield, and all of our partners and supporters in VR like RSA, the Virginia Voice, Deb Ruh at the Global Impact Today radio network, and Cherie Takemoto at the National Clearinghouse for Rehabilitation Training Materials. And of course, pay no attention to the man behind the curtain, my brother, the wizard of technology, Randy Sizemore, for all of his support. Happy International Podcast Day.
Well, in today’s big inspiration showcase, it’s Christopher Spoden who has a message about Asperger’s syndrome and his story of the elevator speech that helped him land his dream job with a government contractor. Welcome to the podcast, Christopher.
Christopher: Thank you very much.
Rick Sizemore: Some guests are simply not allowed to get into this specifics about their job, but Christopher, tell us what you can about where you work.
Christopher: Currently, I am a government contractor at Pacific Architects and Engineers or PAE for short.
Rick Sizemore: Take us back to a time when you were not working and thinking about what your career pathway might be and how you connected with vocational rehabilitation. Could you tell us about that?
Christopher: I actually connected with it after my undergrad years at Lynchburg college, which is now the University of Lynchburg. I had just gotten out of school and I was looking for a job. Then my mother and I heard about DARS and we decided to give it a try. And we met up representative and we felt like this was a pretty good fit, they worked with people with disabilities, which I have. And they also help you find a job and the person, and it seemed like a very friendly environment.
Rick Sizemore: Well, let’s talk about your disability. Could you tell us just a bit about your disability?
Christopher: My personal disability is Asperger syndrome. Now, a little background on this. It used to be its own certain thing, but borderline autism. But then in 2013, they apparently classified it as higher functioning autism, which means it’s not so apparent as say, somebody with Down syndrome. It’s basically a thing that’s not really too noticeable. Basically with me, I’ve noticed some things that I’ve actually looked up information on it. I’ve noticed some things that do affect me, I have a thing for a routine. I like my routine and it’s not always easy for me to properly express myself or it hasn’t been easy for me to properly express myself.
I’m not antisocial by any means. I do like people. And I think also this attention to routine has given me an attention to detail as well. And apparently, when we latch onto a certain topics of interest, we get very focused on it. And to the point where we may become experts in that field of interest. For me, it’s writing fantasy stories. It stayed with me and I love fantasy. And I want to really write a story of my own someday and hopefully write a whole series.
Rick Sizemore: How did you decide on what you might do in vocational rehabilitation to get ready for work?
Christopher: Oh, I tell you, DARS was just… I can’t recommend them enough. They were very valuable. I learned quite a few things. I knew you had to get ready for an interview with a job and try to answer questions as best you could. But of course, there’s a lot more to it than just answering questions. There’s other things as well. How you present yourself, you can research the company, you get a little know-how about them. Maybe you don’t need to know everything, but you get enough amount of knowledge that you can tell the company that you’ve researched and they might actually be quite pleased that you took the time to find out more about them. And of course, there was more to that as well. You also have your body language, your eye contact, how you present yourself, maybe making your questions less rehearsed and more conversational. And then of course, if you don’t necessarily do well in an interview, you can write down the questions that gave you some trouble and then you can look over them and see and craft a better answer for those.
At DARS, they also sent me possible job openings in other places. And also, we did mock interviews. And a representative from DARS actually introduced me to a job club group up in Alexandria, Virginia. And that was a very helpful class because one of the two highlights in particular, along with the mock interviews and practice, we also would meet representatives from various agencies who would come and basically come and talk to us. It was made up of three instructors and the class of job seekers, including myself in the latter. And basically, the agency’s representatives would come in, they would tell us a bit more about their agency, and they would listen to us sell ourselves, which leads me to my second highlight, the elevator speech.
Basically, in a nutshell, the elevator speech is, imagine yourself in an elevator with a prospective employer. You’ve got up to two minutes to try and sell yourself as well as you can. You tell about your skillsets, your experience, job experience, what you’re looking for, who you are, and we basically crafted it so we could present it more as a conversation as well. And we would do this in mock interviews and practice it daily among ourselves. And we would give each other feedback as well, positive feedback that would help us improve it. And my elevator speech really got better over time.
Rick Sizemore: We’re trapped in the elevator. You got me for two minutes, sell yourself.
Christopher: All right. Hello, my name is Christopher Spoden. I have a master’s in library science and a master’s in history as well as over four years of work experience, during which I have gained a great deal of experience. Taking a position with the library museum or federal organization where I can utilize my research, customer service, and organizational skill. I held the library page position at the University of Kentucky, where I withdrew materials for patrons and eliminated older materials from the archives. I volunteered and worked as a library page with the Warrenton Library where I got an experience with the program, the Online Computer Library Center, also known as OCLC, assorted and retrieved materials and assisted patrons. I have also completed three museum internships. One was at the Historic Sandusky Foundation in Lynchburg, Virginia, and another was live with the National D-Day Memorial in Bedford, Virginia.
The latter was my favorite job to date as it involved researching World War II topics, create displays. And my work led to more information being included than previously. More recently, I completed my third internship with the Museum of Culpeper History. On an individual basis, I opened and closed the museum and engaged with visitors by greeting them, answering questions, and explaining procedures. In addition, I also performed research. And among my proudest accomplishments to date was the creation of two educational notebooks on Native Americans and agriculture. I am particularly proud of these projects as I designed them for second to fifth graders, and both will contribute to the education of elementary school students. I love libraries and museums because I love reading and learning about history. I’m hoping the library museum or a federal position will allow me to use my experience to work and serve the public. Thank you for your time.
Rick Sizemore: Wow. I love that. That is absolutely awesome. Without a doubt, I would hire you. No questions asked. I mean, just on that two minutes that was fantastic.
Christopher: Thank you. My instructors have said that I really improved from how I first started and they were very proud.
Rick Sizemore: Yeah. We caught up with your rehabilitation counselor, LaSonya Jackson. Let’s take a listen to what she had to say about your vocational rehabilitation program.
LaSonya Jackson: Yeah, I was just proud of him because he stuck with us. Because he even did seasonal work with Plow and Hearth because he was just willing to do anything, he just really wanted to work. He really wanted a chance. Whatever we presented, we had a reverse job fair at the office and he came. Whatever there was we want him to do, he would do it. And it was just hard for us to find a position that was permanent. It took a while to get the position, but he did. He worked hard. He was having difficulty with interviewing so we kept practicing his mock interviews a lot. He was able to secure the position.
Christopher: She’s very professional and she knows her stuff. And I just found it pretty easy to work with her. She also helped me with my resume as well. Because of course, I needed a resume for a job that was a very big requirement. And she would help me with that from time to time as well, along with others. I’d say I was very glad to meet her.
Rick Sizemore: What other things would you like people to know about your vocational rehabilitation experience?
Christopher: I definitely recommend DARS, highly. And that it’s really helped me to get into the world and work world, and just helped me to polish myself up, to give me a better idea of what to do when you’re getting interviewed. And how to answer questions, how to present yourself, and how to get prospective employers interested in you, and also how to look for jobs. And because the first one, I was applying for a library job, that was my area of interest. But then it was suggested to me that maybe I should try expanding my horizons, so to speak, and looking for stuff that fit in my experience and skillsets. So that seemed like a good idea and they just help me always, like I said. They were pointing out job openings and they would help me prepare for interviews and get ready. And basically, LaSonya was part of that process and she did whatever she could to help me. We always kept in touch as well.
Rick Sizemore: Do you have a favorite story that might help people listening to this podcast understand a little more about what it’s like in your average day to have a disability like Asperger’s?
Christopher: Well, one story that came to mind was working at the Culpeper Museum. I had two particular projects that I had to do where I had to research and look for information on Native Americans in the Northeast and agriculture. It was also in that second to fifth graders and my agriculture project was that, to put them all into an organized fashion, try to have a table of contents in various aspects. Basically, including the visual aids and activities to have to entertain as well as educate the students. I want them to be interested in this. I don’t want them to be bored. And I think my Asperger’s, just paying attention to detail, making sure that everything that the summaries I typed up were correct, and trying to find various activities for them to do, I think that played quite a role in trying to get my project together.
Those two are my two proudest accomplishments I’ve had. Two of my proudest moments because of just the fact that it’s going to be used by students everywhere. The students in Culpeper and likely in Virginia, and maybe even beyond, that’s just a source of inspiration to me because years ago, I wouldn’t have seen myself in that position. But I’ve helped contribute to their education and that’s a great accomplishment. I’m just very happy where I’ve gotten today.
Rick Sizemore: What would you say to someone that has a disability, just thinking about voc rehab as a way of getting a job?
Christopher: If you’re feeling frustrated or disappointed, I’ve been there. Trust me, I have.
Rick Sizemore: We all have.
Christopher: Yeah. But as I was told, just keep plugging away. And that’s why I say to you, plug away, keep going. Do what you can. If you made any mistakes, learn from them and see what you can do to make yourself better. And for voc rehab, don’t be afraid to ask for help. I’m not ashamed to admit I needed it because I wouldn’t be where I am today if not for DARS, in large part because of DARS. I can say that truthfully.
Rick Sizemore: You were a little nervous about doing this. I want to tell you, you did a fantastic, fantastic job, wonderful reflections. You are a rock star.
Christopher: Thank you. Whether you have a disability or you’re just a general job seeker, I say, just do what you can and keep going. It’s not going to be easy. It’s not going to be not necessarily a smooth transition, but you can keep going. It can be done and you can do it.
Rick Sizemore: Christopher Spoden works for a federal contractor providing critical services. National Recovery Month is held every September to educate Americans that substance use treatment and mental health services can enable those with mental and substance use disorders to live healthy and rewarding lives. Join us now for our tribute to those in recovery.
According to the National Institutes for Health, more than 400 people die every day from drug abuse or alcohol related causes. Bentley Wood found himself on that destructive pathway with life spinning out of control.
Bently Wood: It didn’t take long for me to go from using drugs occasionally to using everything in anything I could get my hands on every day. And my drug of choice was MOR. Didn’t matter what it was as long as I had something to alter my mood or mind.
Rick Sizemore: Then Bently’s home was raided and he found himself in jail.
Bently Wood: A lawyer came in and said, “You’re in trouble. Maximum guidelines on your charges are 270 years.”
Rick Sizemore: With this new reality, Bentley connected with his family.
Bently Wood: I went back to jail, but I sat down with each of my two daughters and told them I was going back to jail and I didn’t know if or when I would ever get out again.
Rick Sizemore: But things began to change for Bently as he worked through the judicial system and became one of the first graduates of the Montgomery County drug court. Bentley focused on the future, reflecting on what he had learned about DARS while incarcerated. With the possibility of a new life, employment emerged as a critical need and Bently connected with his vocational rehabilitation counselor, Hope Bradbury.
Bently Wood: It was really exciting for me to build that relationship in the beginning, which was built on hope and trust. No self-worth, no self-compassion, and a belief that life is never going to be any better. And Hope was a piece of me beginning to believe. I mean, there were lots of factors involved in my recovery, but my relationship with her was a supporting piece of beginning to find the belief in myself. I do not believe that I would be sitting here if DARS hadn’t been there to help me in the moments that I really needed that help.
I’m an advocate for drug court. I’m an advocate for recovery. And I also tell my clients about DARS because DARS was a huge part of the early recovery for me. There were a couple times when I had no money and gas cards gave me the money that I needed to get to work. And today, I feel like that I can continue as what I’ll call an Ambassador for DARS. And that’s to share with other people that hope brought to my life and to my recovery experience.
Hope Bradbury: It’s humbling. He’s a great inspiration to others. He has worked his way up to now helping people into the recovery process. And he has such a promoter of the positive side of things. I’m just so proud of Bentley.
Bently Wood: Employers need people in recovery because resilience transcends everything. My message isn’t about the addiction. My message is about the recovery. My name’s Bently Wood, I work for New River Valley Community Services as a Peer Recovery Specialist. Became certified, and then I registered with the Board of Counseling. And so that makes me a registered Peer Recovery Specialist also. Really appreciate the opportunity to be here. And without DARS, I don’t think I would be.
Rick Sizemore: You can hear Bently’s entire story on episode 79 of the VR Workforce Studio. Or learn more about the Virginia Department for Aging and Rehabilitative Services at vadars.org, The Virginia Department for Aging and Rehabilitative Services, helping fill the talent pipelines of Virginia’s businesses and industries with skilled, talented, and credentialed workers who happen to have disabilities.
In our VR briefing room, we’re fortunate to welcome Dr. DeAnna Henderson, who is the current president of the National Rehabilitation Association Board of Directors here to talk about their upcoming conference and, disability employment awareness month. Welcome, Dr. Henderson.
Dr. Henderson: Thank you. Thank you very much for having me.
Rick Sizemore: DeAnna, it’s nice to have you on the podcast. I was getting ready for the show yesterday afternoon and took about six years, yesterday afternoon, reading through your list of accomplishments. You’ve been in key faculty and leadership positions at several universities. You’ve had real world, what I like to call, boots on the ground experience in the field of rehabilitation. You’re published, you’re a noted national speaker, and now the president of the national rehabilitation association. So just to set the context for today’s show, could you give us a quick overview of NRA’s mission and vision?
Dr. Henderson: We are uniquely positioned as the oldest rehabilitation organization in the US, and so we have a due diligence to make sure that consumers, individuals with disabilities, are properly noted and cared for in their respective communities. And so NRA is a national organization that works with many states across the country in order to make that happen. And so we have chapters in each state, and we have several divisions that are focused on specific avenues of rehabilitation counseling, or rehabilitation in general, and make sure that our consumers are taken care of.
Rick Sizemore: DeAnna, so many rehabilitation professionals plan their networking and their personal development around the Fall conference …..I understand there are some changes in the works with a fresh new look and approach being scheduled at some point in the not too distant future, what’s on the horizon for NRA’s annual conference?
Dr. Henderson: Actually, we’re still in the planning stages, but we want to offer our consumers and our members some type of education and training specifically around COVID-19 and how we can make sure that our consumers are getting the help and the support and resources that they need in order to successfully navigate the pandemic as everyone else is trying to navigate for pandemic this year. In addition to that, the National Rehabilitation Association wants to address some of the race-related challenges that has plagued the US this year, and talk a little bit about how we make sure that not only consumers and those with disabilities are taken care of, but what about our minority consumers and what does that look like for them as well?
Rick Sizemore: Next month in October is National Disability Employment Awareness month. Now, this year’s theme is increasing access and opportunity. Now, we’ve talked a lot about the 30th anniversary of the ADA on this show, but it’s also the 75th anniversary of National Disability Employment Awareness month. Now, if you go out to the Federal Department of Labor’s Office of Disability employment policy, and we’ll include the link for that in our show notes, you can find a lot of information, including a link to download free posters and resources about National Disability Employment Awareness month. DeAnna, so what does all this mean in real terms for people with disabilities?
Dr. Henderson: Well, what it means for people with disabilities is that we are reminding America’s employers, the importance of an inclusive work environment and inclusive hiring practice. We’re also reminding America that individuals with disabilities are successful, productive employees, and that they should definitely be included. And I think it’s important to highlight that accommodating individuals with disabilities is going to help America recover economically. And so I think it’s important that every year, we have this month to make sure people are aware of the importance of inclusivity.
Rick Sizemore: I mean, the emphasis in our current pandemic is about helping recover, but there’s a bigger picture in all of the workforce context about filling the talent pipeline. I have to put you on the spot. Do you have a favorite story about an individual with a disability going to work?
Dr. Henderson: You did put me on the spot, Rick. Let me think about it.
Rick Sizemore: Someone with a disability went back to work. You’ve reflect back on that, what does it leave you with?
Dr. Henderson: Actually, it left me with recognizing those strengths in everyone. After something so traumatic can happen in life and the resiliency of people and people with disability, oftentimes people themselves with disabilities may forget about their strengths, their qualities, their positive characteristics. Because sometimes, the world identifies them only by their disability, but seeing the spark, the glow when someone is able to return to work and become a participant in society again, it’s so beautiful. And again, it reminds me of the resiliency and the strength in us all. And so I think that person overcoming their tragedy, in their eyes, I’m using the words that they use, so I don’t want people to think I’m saying it was tragic, these are their words. And being able to return to work and be successful in their work, not only doing that, but able to teach for us at the university. Again, it was all about resiliency, it’s all about strength and looking at it in yourself and seeing those positive qualities.
Rick Sizemore: Do you have anything else you’d like our listeners to know about the National Rehabilitation Association?
Dr. Henderson: The National Rehabilitation Association is the oldest professional member organization in the United States. And again, we work and advocate for the rights of individuals with disabilities. I would love for you all to check us out. Our webpage is nationalrehab.org, come check us out. Attend our conferences, come join our organization and be a part of the change that we’re trying to make in the world.
Rick Sizemore: Dr. DeAnna Henderson is the President of the Board of the National Rehabilitation Association. Thank you so much for joining us today, DeAnna.
Dr. Henderson: Thank you so much for having me.
Rick Sizemore: It’s time for our national clearinghouse update with the always entertaining and informative Cherie Takemoto. welcome, Cherie.
Cherie Takemoto: It was really interesting to hear about Christopher’s story and I have a few autism resources to share.
Rick Sizemore: Great.
Cherie Takemoto: So the first is called the STAR, Secondary Transition Resources for Students with Autism. And it was from a group convened by the National Technical Assistance Center on Transition to explore what is known in research related to autism and how that applies to employment and preparing for employment. The second is from workforce GPS and its workplace resources for autism spectrum disorder, for folks who are interested in hiring people with autism.
Rick Sizemore: Right on the mark for today’s show, for sure.
Cherie Takemoto: So I want to share something that we’re excited about, which is the virtual series of results and reflections for RSA’s technical assistance and demonstration projects. And about 12 to 14 projects share their results and resources for what they learned over their past three to five years of funding.
Rick Sizemore: Wow. And next month is October.
Cherie Takemoto: Yes, and October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month. This year’s theme is increasing access and opportunity. And I’ll go ahead and share the link for that so that all your listeners can start preparing for October.
Rick Sizemore: Cherie Takemoto directs the National Clearinghouse of Rehabilitation Training Materials. Thank you, Cherie.
Here’s Lynn Harris, director of the Wilson Workforce and Rehabilitation Center Foundation.
Lynn Harris: Foundation is so pleased to bring you these exciting stories of how vocational rehabilitation is changing people’s lives by helping them gain the skills and credentials they need to be successful in business and industry. We thank all of our partners in podcasting who made this episode possible. ABLEnow, Aladdin foods, the Council of State Administrators of Vocational Rehabilitation, CVS health, First Bank & Trust, and The Hershey Company. You can find out more by visiting us at wwrcf.org, or find our contact information in the show notes at vrworkforcestudio.com
Rick Sizemore: You can always find another exciting episode as we podcast the sparks that ignite vocational rehabilitation here at the VR Workforce Studio. Until next time, I’m Rick Sizemore.
Speaker 5: The VR workforce studio podcast is owned and operated by the Wilson Workforce and Rehabilitation Center Foundation. The foundation publishes and distributes the VR Workforce Studio and manages all sponsor arrangements. Audio content for the podcast is provided to the Wilson Workforce and Rehabilitation Center Foundation by the Virginia Department for Aging and Rehabilitative Services in exchange promotional consideration.