EPISODE 67: The man who makes classrooms comfortable and Vicki goes to the Miss Wheelchair America Event.

Viki Varner Tattoo

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

Anne Hudlow’s email is Annehudlow@comcast.net

Ira Socol Twitter @irasocol

Vicki Varner Twitter @86Vicki

Help with Vicki’s funding for the National Miss Wheelchair America Trip

Cherie Takemoto, PhD Project Director/Senior Research Analyst ctakemoto@neweditions.net, on Twitter @RSA_NCRTM Phone: 703-356-8035 ext. 107   National Clearinghouse for Rehabilitation Training Materials

Wilson Workforce and Rehabilitation Center Twitter @wwrc

National Rehabilitation Association Twitter @nationalRehab

Accessibility Resources from the NCRTM

Are you looking for resources about Word, PowerPoint and PDF document accessibility? The NCRTM updated their Accessibility Resources Page to gear content for beginners. Here are new video tutorials:


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Announcer:   (singing)

Announcer: VR Workforce Studio. Inspiration, education and affirmation at work. Welcome to another episode as we open up the VR Workforce Studio to champion the courageous stories of vocational rehabilitation from individuals with disabilities.

Speaker 2: Listen to our amazing stories. Dare to join and share in our inspiration.

Announcer: We’ll also meet the champions of business and industry.

Speaker 3: I can say, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that some of our best employees have disabilities.

Announcer: And hear from the VR professionals who have dedicated their lives and careers to helping individuals with disabilities go to work. Now here’s the host to the VR Workforce studio, Rick Sizemore-

Speaker 4: Begin countdown.

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

Speaker 5: Four, three, two, one!

Rick Sizemore: Welcome to Episode 67 of the VR Workforce Studio. Today we meet the man who made the classroom comfortable. Anne Hudlow joins me in the big inspirational showcase, as we talk with Ira Socol, who’s standing by with a phenomenal story of assisted technology and vocational rehabilitation.

Rick Sizemore: Also in today’s show, the National Clearinghouse Update, with Cherie Takemoto, and a real treat. Vicki Varner is back, and headed to the National Miss Wheelchair America Program in July, and hear her story, and learn how she’s changing the view of what it means to be disabled.

Rick Sizemore: (singing)

Rick Sizemore: Ira Socol is a former police officer injured in the line of duty, an assistive technology trailblazer, and a celebrated author. He’s with us here in the VR Workforce Studio. Welcome, Ira.

Ira Socol: Well, thanks for having me, Rick.

Rick Sizemore: It’s delightful to be with you after hearing you talk to our leadership team recently and describe your experiences with assistive technology. I wanted to get started with the fact that the Center for Digital Education recognized you as one of the nation’s top tech trailblazers. Let’s start there. Tell us about that.

Ira Socol: I think that was a, it was a really great honor. I don’t think any of us are in this for the awards or honors in the world of work, but I have tried, and every job I’ve sort of had an education, to help every student find their voice, and be able to communicate, and be fully a part of a school, and to get access to everything they want.

Ira Socol: One of the things that I believe that the Center for Digital Education most appreciated was that when I was working at Audubon County, we made sure that every single computer that went out to children, and every student had one, from third grade through twelfth grade, was fully equipped with what people would have called assistive technology in the old days, but we just called universal design.

Ira Socol: We said a student should not have to have an IEP to say, “I need to listen to this book,” or, “I need to dictate this work, ar I need to watch it on video.” And so, we equipped every computer with those kind of choices, so every student could find their way.

Ira Socol: I think the big part of that is, for special ed students, that leaves them in control of their identity, if everyone has access to the tools. These students aren’t obviously different when they’re in classrooms.

Rick Sizemore: We’re talking with a person, Ira, who is recognized across the spectrum in the education field as a person who understands technology and uses technology. Let’s go back, though, to the beginning of when you developed a disability, and hear about your own story.

Ira Socol: Well, I’ve lived with a variety of disabilities across my life, and probably the first ones that were identified, although they were using the really bad terms used back in the 1960s and ’70s, but basically, I’ve always struggled with reading print, and making sense of the alphabet. I’ve always struggled with writing.

Ira Socol: Nether of these are particularly uncommon, but in my case, they were particularly difficult struggles. Way back at the beginning, I was lucky enough to live in a city that was home to a company called Spoken Arts, which put books onto, back then, LP records.

Rick Sizemore: All right!

Anne Hudlow: Oh, that’s cool.

Ira Socol: And yeah, I discovered that if I could listen to stuff, I understood it. While it would take me so long to read something, that I couldn’t possibly ever get through it.

Ira Socol: I also struggled with the kind of things that make life and school easy. I’m not a person who sits still very well, and who follows every rule, and things like that, and that created struggles.

Ira Socol: But slowly, across the years, I learned other technologies that would really help. The New York City Police Department, when I was in the Police Academy in New York, was very good with putting all their books on tape, in the earliest days of the Walkman.

Ira Socol: You have to imagine how exciting it is, to be riding a subway for an hour, listening to a law book? But that’s okay. It got me through it.

Ira Socol: Finally, when I got to Grand Valley State University in Michigan, sort of in my post-police life, I found professors who linked me to the very early text to speech technology, and speech to text.

Ira Socol: I was lucky enough, I was working with the university’s IT department, to have a boss who said, “Well, if things will help you, maybe they’ll help everybody.” And so, we adopted a campus-wide system of accessible computing, which was available to any student, 24/7.

Ira Socol: At the same time, when I was in the Police Department, I added physical issues to my life. I was injured a number of times, including both knees, and some other injuries. Those injuries, while they didn’t instantly incapacitate me, are things that just got worse over time.

Ira Socol: I’d been through many levels of rehab over time, learning to do things differently, again, and I’m not at an age where I want to give up and stop. So I came to WWRC to learn, both physically rehab, and learn the best ways that I can function, that’ll allow me to keep working.

Anne Hudlow: Well, straight off the treadmill, into the podcast recording studio.] You’re obviously not, not giving up, that’s for sure.

Rick Sizemore: You’re knocking it down.

Anne Hudlow: Yeah.

Ira Socol: I don’t want to give up, and-

Anne Hudlow: Yeah.

Ira Socol: I have the same, it’s important for me to have the same attitude toward myself, that I’ve always encouraged kids that I’ve worked with to have, which is, just because you have something that’s a bigger challenge for you, doesn’t mean you have to give up.

Ira Socol: We live an incredible age when we can solve so many things. I mean, I talk about how the technology to get past the reading and writing issues I have on my phone, for free, are things we used to put on computers for $3,000 per-

Rick Sizemore: Exactly.

Ira Socol: Person, 25 years ago.

Anne Hudlow: Wow, yeah, absolutely.

Rick Sizemore: So, across the whole spectrum of vocational rehabilitation, there’s the physical rehabilitation that you’re now involved in. You’ve had a career around assistive technology, and helping people interface with computers and learn. Tell us about some of the books. I’m so intrigued by the title of the first book you found, if you Google Ira Socol, The Drool Room.

Ira Socol: Well, The Drool Room was a tough thing to write, and like, I think, most first novels, it’s putting quotes around biographically informed. It’s a novel. I don’t want to say it’s a memoir, because who knows how different people remember things? But The Drool Room is sort of a description of an experience of a young man with extensive learning disabilities, and the struggle to find a good way to get through life.

Ira Socol: Then it moves into going through college, and becoming a police officer, and it has those different things, and how there are different solutions to different things. I wrote it, in a lot of ways, because I wanted people to be able to grasp an understanding of disability, and perhaps of post-traumatic stress disorder, and the ways that people’s lives, the tensions and pressures of, especially on young lives, build farm through life.

Ira Socol: It was a tough book. I mean, I literally spent nine years writing it, and it’s not very long, and I’ve had great readers read it in an afternoon, which sort of frustrates me, because I spent so long, and they should spend just as long reading it. But it’s, I think, it’s really important for people to tell their stories.

Ira Socol: I always tell kids in school this: “People have to tell their stories, so people understand the complexity and the range of life is not this narrowly defined normal.” But people have a lot of experiences, and so one of the things I still do every year is work with teachers on helping kids write about their difficult, difficulties in life.

Ira Socol: If we can get kids saying what’s going on, I think we all learn a lot.

Rick Sizemore: You’ve really boiled that whole book down into that essence, and that focus on young people, of trying to figure out their way, is so important, especially with the technology that we have. What about A Certain Place of Dreams?

Ira Socol: Well, A Certain Place of Dreams is, I love working in what’s called, usually called microfiction, which is stories of 1,000 words or less, and A Certain Place of Dreams was written to capture both a place and a group of people, and spins around the US-Irish connection, and explores, again, historical damage that exists in societies.

Ira Socol: I’ve worked with schools in Ireland, and Ireland is a country filled with people damaged by the outside things. It’s also filled with amazing myth and stories, and a sense of place, and a sense of family, and I was really trying to capture those contradictions in that.

Ira Socol: It’s been a place of incredible violence, lifetimes, and yet, a place of incredible love and support. It’s a place I’ve spent a bunch of time, and I really love, and it was putting that process together.

Ira Socol: There’s stories that are truly of that place, and there are stories that are transferred, in my mind, from things that have happened in other places to there, to see how the response would have been. I always think it’s kind of great to think of a story that people can read in under 10 minutes, that they can take in, and in that little glimpse of times that we have in between.

Ira Socol: I’m also a deep believer in short, quick, effective communications, when that works. You don’t always need 100,000 words to-

Rick Sizemore: Right, exactly.

Ira Socol: Tell a story.

Anne Hudlow: Yeah, also allows you to reread it, and let it sink in.

Ira Socol: Yeah, right.

Rick Sizemore: That’s why we love podcasts.

Anne Hudlow: That’s it.

Ira Socol: Yes.

Rick Sizemore: And get right to it, and get right to the point, which is what I’m going to do. You’re a celebrated author. Your books are all available online through Amazon, and other places. You have been a consultant in extensive projects, in education, and now you’re in vocational rehabilitation.

Rick Sizemore: What are the key ways that voc rehab are helping you continue to be employed? That’s the essence of what this podcast is about. How’s it affecting you?

Ira Socol: Well, and what’s great about the outpatient program that I’m, is I can move gently back into employment, by doing some days of work, and some days here. The things that I struggle with now are, first, just simply walking. My injuries to knees that have been repeated caused some extensive nerve damage that has resulted I eight surgeries, just on my legs alone, in the past four years.

Ira Socol: During that time, when you’re constantly recovering from surgeries, the amount of muscle tone you lose, the amount of balance skills you lose, and there are things now…

Ira Socol: A big part of what I do is walking schools with school administrators, so that we can actually see what a school, what’s happening in a building. I have to get back to being able to walk a whole school, or maybe two schools in a day, and be able to work with people.

Ira Socol: That’s really important to me, so that’s one goal, and that involves the physical rehabilitation of stuff. But the other thing that’s come up in my life, and one of the things, you get into this pattern of saying, “Oh, no, what’s the next thing that’s going to be a problem?”

Ira Socol: But I have severe arthritis in my hands. Now I do most of my writing by speaking, and I do almost all of my reading by listening. But I still have to do things like get a credit card out of my wallet, or cook dinner without hurting myself, or put my backpack over my shoulder, and do things.

Ira Socol: Occupational therapy has been amazing. I went through school to do, to be an assistive technology specialist, and I’ve been exposed to a lot of things. But I’ve never thought the way OTs think.

Rick Sizemore: Right. They take a different approach to life.

Ira Socol: They take a different approach to life, and it’s been, first, an incredible sort of blessing to learn from them, to see… so they’ll watch me cook, and then say, “Oh, you know, it may not be the best way to be working a knife with your hands right now, or the best way to be stirring something.”

Ira Socol: At the same time, it’s making me a better professional in what I do, because now I’m being able to sort of see the world the way they do, and I think that’s a real help in my work. So it’s been, these are intense days, of the physical work, and then, the habits of mine that need to go into changing what you do.

Ira Socol: It’s remarkable that somebody look at you as you hold the steering wheel and say, “What if you turned your hands around?”

Rick Sizemore: Right. Yeah, these little changes-

Ira Socol: These tiny little changes that make-

Rick Sizemore: That change everything.

Ira Socol: Right, because suddenly, I can drive without being in total pain at the end of it. It’s a-

Anne Hudlow: Right. It makes a big difference.

Ira Socol: Yeah.

Anne Hudlow: I don’t know how, from this list, you would narrow this down, but what is something that you feel is your greatest accomplishment at this point in your life?

Ira Socol: I walked into a classroom in a middle one day, and this one young man pointed to me an said, “I know you. You’re the guy who made classrooms comfortable.”

Rick Sizemore: Oh!

Anne Hudlow: Oh, man!

Ira Socol: And I thought-

Anne Hudlow: That’s awesome.

Ira Socol: “Maybe that’s what I want to be known for.”

Rick Sizemore: Ira Socol, celebrated author, consultant, consumer of assistive technology, and the person who makes the classroom comfortable. Thank you for being on the podcast.

Ira Socol: Thank you very much.

Anne Hudlow: Thank you.

Rick Sizemore: We’re on the line with Christa Martin, a certified rehabilitation counselor and employment specialist from the Kentucky Office of Vocational Rehabilitation, who also happens to run the Facebook site for the National Rehabilitation Association. Welcome to the podcast, Christa!

Christa Martin: Thanks, Rick! Thanks for having me.

Rick Sizemore: You were a key figure at the 38th Annual Disability Summit. Tell us about some of the highlights that went on at the summit.

Christa Martin: Well, you had people from all over the country. They are representing both public and private vocational rehabilitation counseling professions.

Christa Martin: There was a really great mix of people from all over, and we were able to offer additional training on our last day, so some people went to the Hill, to do their legislative appointments, and then other people were able to stay, and get more professional development training opportunities.

Rick Sizemore: Well, we’re excited to see all you’re doing on social media, and especially this new Facebook site. Anything you want to say about that?

Christa Martin: Yeah, if you haven’t already liked and followed the National Rehabilitation Association’s Facebook page, and followed us on other social media formats, like Twitter, or LinkedIn, SnapChat, Instagram, please do.

Rick Sizemore: All the best to you and your team out at the Kentucky Office of Vocational Rehabilitation. Christa Martin.

Christa Martin: Thank you so much, Rick!

Rick Sizemore: It’s the amazing Vicki Varner!

Vicki Varner: You can make life crappy, or you can make life great, and I just choose to make life great.

Rick Sizemore: Well, Vicki Varner’s back with us, Vicki, a former college softball player injured in a car accident. Welcome to the podcast, Vicki.

Vicki Varner: How are you today, Rick?

Rick Sizemore: You have some exciting plans in the works. You’re on the way to Arkansas for the Miss Wheelchair America program.Tell us about that.

Vicki Varner: Well, I won my state competition back in January, and since then, I have been doing different engagements and events. I’m kind of in preparation, and also, towards my advocacy for Nationals. So, by July 1st, I have to have a memorized speech, and have everything set in stone by July 1st. Then I go down to Little Rock and compete for seven days, so I’m really looking forward to that.

Rick Sizemore: This is a week’s worth of competitions.

Vicki Varner: Yeah. Yeah, it’s going to… it’s a long week, but from everything I’ve heard, it’s supposed to be like, an event of a lifetime, like, something that I’ll never forget. So I’m really stoked and looking forward to it.

Rick Sizemore: Well, there’s a lot of people here pulling for you, and we’re very excited about that. For those of you who have not met Vicki, tell us your story.

Vicki Varner: I was in a car accident on December 24, 2015. Prior to my accident, I was a softball pitcher at college. I was home on Christmas break. My brother was driving a little too fast on some back roads that night, and we hit a tree going about 55 miles per hour.

Vicki Varner: During impact, the seat belt ripped through my stomach. I severed my spinal cord, broke my pelvis, minor brain injury, et cetera, et cetera. I was basically just the Humpty Dumpty of it all.

Vicki Varner: But since then, I have really gotten my life back together. I think my life is better now than it was before. I feel it has more meaning to it now, and I’ve went back to school, I’ve started working, and now I’m involved with the Miss Wheelchair America program.

Rick Sizemore: On, that’s so exciting, and you’re headed back to school this fall?

Vicki Varner: Yes. So I’ve been doing some online courses. I was having some issues with my health, but in the fall, I hope to transfer into a university again. So, to actually be back with my peers, and to be able to see everybody face to face will just be so much better than just doing it online.

Rick Sizemore: Yeah. Now, since the accident, you’ve been moving forward in your life. Could you tell us about some of the challenges, and how you’ve gotten through them?

Vicki Varner: It’s not always sunshine and rainbows in any person’s life, so that’s not excluding mine, either. When you first find out, after a traumatic accident, that you are about paralyzed from the waist down, and you lived a very active lifestyle before, it can be kind of crushing.

Vicki Varner: But you just kind of have to look at what you still have, and what you’re still going to do, and focus on that. But I also had some minor health setbacks as well. I immediately went back to college after my accident, like, just six months in. I was still really new to the whole disability world, and I treated my body like I did before the accident.

Vicki Varner: I got a pressure sore that led to me becoming septic, and a bone infection, and all of that stuff. Then I had to leave school, and then I went through two surgeries to try to fix it, and then I was on bed rest for about a year before the Miss Wheelchair Virginia competition.

Vicki Varner: Again, going from a really active lifestyle, to just being completely down, that was mentally what was hardest for me, and getting through all of that.

Rick Sizemore: You’re doing a lot of things with fitness now.

Vicki Varner: Yes. Yes. Like I said, before the accident, I was a college softball pitcher, and that had been my life completely, for 18 years.

Vicki Varner: I wasn’t really ready to throw in the towel with the athletic lifestyle, so now, I still try to implement that in my day to day life as well.

Vicki Varner: I try to go to the gym as much as possible, and any competition I strive on, I love some good old-fashioned competition.

Rick Sizemore: Yeah.

Vicki Varner: I did a video with one of my friends, who’s a personal trainer specifically for people with disabilities. We kind of talked to them about how to work with people with disabilities, and how to have inclusive classes and equipment and all of that.

Rick Sizemore: We have to know about your tattoo.

Vicki Varner: Oh yeah. Yes. So I have a tattoo on my forearm, and it says, “Perspective on it, but it’s all in how you look on it, at it.” So the P is sideways, the R is upside down, the E is sideways. It really is all on how you look at it, so I apply that to my daily life, and I believe that perspective is a huge role in my optimistic lifestyle, and it’s all just on how you view things.

Rick Sizemore: What is your message to people with disabilities who are struggling?

Vicki Varner: My message would be that life isn’t over, as much as you feel that is against you right now. I know, in the disability community, when it rains, it pours, but just to try to remain calm, and to keep looking forward. Don’t look back at what’s happened with you.

Vicki Varner: Don’t necessarily even look at what’s happening to you right now, but just look at all the things that you’re going to do, and that you will do, and all the things you will accomplish, and that’s what’s going to keep you going, and keep pushing you.

Rick Sizemore: That is so awesome. Tell us about some of the expenses that you’re going to encounter, getting yourself down to Arkansas.

Vicki Varner: Yes, so, Nationals is about $2,000, it is $2,000, but that’s not including plane tickets, dress and all those expenses, so it’s a $1,000 application fee. Then it’s a $1,000 fee to be in the competition, so the $2,000 upfront, and then, as well as the plane tickets and my dress.

Rick Sizemore: So it all adds up. If you’d like to help Vicki, there’s a link on her Facebook page, and that’s Vicki with an I, V-I-C-K-I, Vicki Varner. You can search and find her easily on Facebook, so reach out, and every little bit helps, as we all stand behind you, Vicki, and wish you the best in this exciting competition.

Vicki Varner: Well, thank you. Everyone’s support seriously means the world to me.

Rick Sizemore: Well, I hear that sound. It must be time for our National Clearinghouse Update with Cherie Takemoto.

Cherie Takemoto: Hey, Rick!

Rick Sizemore: Hey, Cherie. Welcome to the podcast.

Cherie Takemoto: Yes, and I’m so impressed with Ira, and all the work he’s doing to make schools accessible for all students.

Rick Sizemore: Wonderful.

Cherie Takemoto: I’d like to introduce some resources that we at the NCRTM have done to make the Internet accessible, and computers accessible, to people with disabilities.

Rick Sizemore: Outstanding!

Cherie Takemoto: We have some beginner resources. The NCRTM, right in the top bar, and I’ll send you that link, that talks about why accessibility is important, just for beginners, and then some ways that beginners can use Word, PowerPoint and Excel, accessible to people with disabilities, and videos to get started. These are short videos.

Cherie Takemoto: I’m not only going to send you a link to our website, but also to the YouTube links that you can just on play, to make your documents accessible.

Rick Sizemore: Outstanding.

Cherie Takemoto: I’d also like to introduce another project that we have at New Editions, which is AbleData, funded by the Administration for Community Living, to provide information or referral for people interested in not only the physical accessibility, but also Internet, and I’ll provide that link this week.

Rick Sizemore: Always good to hear from you, Cherie. Cherie Takemoto, from The National Clearinghouse For Rehabilitation Training Materials.

Anne Hudlow: The WWRC Foundation is grateful for the continued assistance that we receive in support of the Center. Additionally, we extend our gratitude to our wonderful partners in podcasting, who made this episode possible: Aladdin Foods.

Rick Sizemore: Career Pathways For Individuals with Disabilities.

Anne Hudlow: Community Foundation of the Central Blue Ridge.

Rick Sizemore: The Council of State Administrators of Vocational Rehabilitation.

Anne Hudlow: CVS Health, Dominion Energy.

Rick Sizemore: Certainly can’t forget our friends at The Global Impact Today Radio Network, with Deb [Rue 00:28:38], and her team.

Anne Hudlow: That’s right, and we have Hershey Chocolate Company, Jesse Ball duPont Fund, United Bank, Valley to Virginia Grant, Virginia Manufacturers Association.

Rick Sizemore: And we are always appreciative of our partners at the Virginia Voice, who broadcast these episodes.

Anne Hudlow: That’s right. And last not but not least, Wells Fargo.

Rick Sizemore: Well, it’s been another great show, Anne. Thanks for all that you and the Foundation are doing. The one thing I know you would like is that if our listeners would sign up for your newsletter.

Anne Hudlow: That’s right. We do have a newsletter. We’d love to have you all involved, so please join us by signing up at our website, www.rcf.org.

Rick Sizemore: Well, until next time, I’m Rick Sizemore.

Anne Hudlow: And I’m Anne Hudlow.

Rick Sizemore: With the courageous stories of vocational rehabilitation.