Work makes the world go round with armless guitarist, George Dennehy
Plus an interview with OSEP’s new Director, Valerie Williams
VR Workforce Studio Singers: V-R- Workforce Studio
Evan Graham: I’m very proud to be part of that spear point to let other companies know that there are people in this world who, while they have these disabilities, they’re still confident and willing to take those strides.
Steve Sweeney: 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.
Jered Lem: Tech Support this is Jered speaking how may I help you?
Rose Hilderbrand: I have a position at Masco Cabinetry.
Alfred McMillan: I’m a supervisor at Sedexo.
Steve Sweeney: 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.
Steve Sweeney: And the businesses who have filled their talent pipelines with workers that happen to have disabilities.
Debby Hopkins: To help expand registered apprenticeship.
Steve Sweeney: These are their stories.
Megan Healy: Because there is such a great story to tell about people with disabilities.
Steve Sweeney: Now here is the host of the VR workforce studio. Rick Sizemore.
Rick Sizemore: Welcome to episode 106 of the VR Workforce Studio Podcast. Work makes the world round. Rick Sizemore here, along with producer and co-host, Betsy Civilette. Hey, Betsy.
Betsy Civilette: Hey, Rick. I am so excited about today’s show. We have an interview with Valerie Williams, the new director for the Office of Special Education Programs. And David Leon and Evan Graham are here to talk about a fabulous, new opportunity for people with disabilities who are interested in apprenticeships.
Rick Sizemore: But let’s get started with George Dennehy, the armless guitarist. He’s working with an array of VR agencies and businesses all across the United States, telling the story of vocational rehabilitation or VR and disability employment through his new song and music video. He joins us in just a few minutes with reflections on this amazing new music just released, that’s capturing the attention of the VR and disability communities. Let’s take a listen now with Work Makes the World Go Round by George Dennehy.
Work makes the world go round
Everybody make a sound
Show them all who you are
It’s time for you to be a star
Ain’t nothin’ gonna hold you back
Trained for this and that’s a fact
There’s so much for you to do
All you gotta do is choose
Cause work makes the world go round
I’m made for this moment
It’s time to own it
I’m not afraid now
I’m gonna seize the day
Workin’ hard, so they say
I’ve got my heart strong
Keeping my head on
Wants to come in my way
It’s all gonna be okay
Makin these wages
Turning life’s pages
Building my future
There’s joy in the daily grind
Showing up right on time
I’m ready to give my all
It’s okay to learn to fall
I will never stay there down
Each day an opportunity
To be the best that I can be
This is what I’m made for
It’s all that I worked toward
In my VR training
To find a job for myself
Focused on nothing else
Though I may be different
That don’t mean that I can’t
Be part of society
Advocate for my life
There’s no disability
Rick Sizemore: George, tell us about this song.
George Dennehy: Yeah. Well, I was so honored to be asked to be a part of this and kind of create this new song for VR and… I mean, right away, I just went right to it and created this song from just thinking about my own time, working with VR as a teenager, learning how to drive, and really just the mission that you guys stand for of encouraging and pushing, in a good way, people with differences to go out and just reach their full potential. And that’s kind of where the song first kind of came from and those ideas and the chorus and verses and finding your career, finding your calling, and just making a difference in the world, and not letting your challenges get in the way of that.
Rick Sizemore: The song is amazing. You hear it and you can’t stop singing it. Betsy, you’ve been part of this project from the very beginning. You helped create the concepts for the song. You were in the studio the day it was recorded and you did all of the video editing.
Betsy Civilette: I agree. Once you start singing it, you just can’t stop. But what amazes me most about the song is that George took our original ideas and form them into a final product in less than 24 hours. He is truly a gem and a talent.
Rick Sizemore: He is a true talent.
George Dennehy: I don’t want to downplay the passion I put into it or anything because I was just so excited to write it. It wasn’t a chore. I didn’t get any writer’s block, which I tend to get a lot when I write songs. It was just such a clear vision, that you helped me with. Thinking about the mission and the vision of it, I was able to just, yeah, like you said, pour out this song. And I’m really, really proud of it. I wish I could say how the melodies came in my head but they just did.
Rick Sizemore: It’s a great song. George Dennehy is the voice. He is the singer that brings vocational rehabilitation to life in the stories of other people and the images that we’ve been able to get from other voc rehab organizations around the country. George, you’re an amazing singer. You’re an amazing guitarist, and it’s such an honor to be involved with you on this project.
George Dennehy: It is the background of the bigger picture and the bigger vision, which is these videos coming in and these just examples of persevering people who inspiring the world with their strive and their strength.
Rick Sizemore: George, thank you so much.
George Dennehy: Thank you. Yes. Thank you for letting me be a part of it and for everyone to hear it. And, hopefully, take it to heart and take it with them wherever they go.
Rick Sizemore: George Dennehy is a performing artist and motivational speaker from Richmond, Virginia. You can find all of his contact information in our show notes, at vrworkforcestudio.com, along with a full interview, detailing his life and journey through vocational rehabilitation. Just look in the library for episode six.
Rick Sizemore: There’s a new and exciting opportunity for people with disabilities to get involved in apprenticeships. David Leon, the director of workforce programs at the Virginia Department for Aging and Rehabilitative Services, joins us now with more.
David Leon: Thanks, Rick. I have not been this excited about a work project in a long time. It is an RSA disability innovation fund grant. We are calling it Pathways and our goal is to help 750 of our clients enter into state, federal, local government positions or registered apprenticeships in STEM or skilled trades. We are really excited about a complete focus and almost a tunnel vision on career pathways around registered apprenticeship and state, federal, and local government. And because it’s a demonstration project, we’re going to get to do some really unique things through this grant. We are partnering directly with the Department of Labor & Industry, office of Registered Apprenticeship for the state. We are also partnering with the Department of Human Resource Management. Each of those agencies are housing a VR liaison; in other words, a counselor position that, instead of working at DARS, will be housed within those two agencies, working on making inroads, developing relationships, and creating opportunities for more people with disabilities to enter into those fields.
Rick Sizemore: So this is brand new. You’re just out of the gate, but, already, you have some early returns, boots on the ground success stories. Tell us what’s happening in the field.
David Leon: Absolutely. One of other unique thing about this grant is that we added a quick response counselor. Because as we were developing the concept, we realized there might be people with hidden disabilities who were at risk at not being successful in a position they had already received, especially when you think of registered apprenticeships, which might include a two-year process and educational components. We have just finished onboarding our four staff for this program. We haven’t even fully finished our work plan or all of the pieces of the puzzle, and our DOLI liaison went on a tour with… They call them ride-alongs with one of DOLI’s other lead generation specialists was talking to the employer, and they had an opportunity for an optical dispensary apprentice. One of our DARS clients, Evan Graham, applied for it and was quickly moved into that apprenticeship. And he is with us to talk about this amazing new opportunity for people with disabilities.
Rick Sizemore: Welcome to the podcast, Evan.
Evan Graham: Hi, Rick, it’s a pleasure to be here.
Rick Sizemore: Well, tell us about this new apprenticeship.
Evan Graham: There was an opportunity to be joining For Eyes, and that’s where I’m working.
Rick Sizemore: Now, what is For Eyes?
Evan Graham: For Eyes is a company that’s built around providing glasses and other optical needs for people. They all often work with optometrists around the area and also around the US.
Rick Sizemore: Tell us a little bit about, actually, getting into that apprenticeship.
Evan Graham: Went in for the interview. And from there, I would sign the paperwork and then I was in.
Rick Sizemore: That’s exciting. What do you hope to get out of this?
Evan Graham: A confident feeling that I’m caring for people, and For Eyes provides that. It’s for glasses. It’s for people who need to see. If I can know at the end of the day that people are seeing better or seeing their future, then that’s what I want.
Rick Sizemore: Wow. Could you tell us about your disability?
Evan Graham: Autism and dysautonomia, and that’s essentially a issue with blood circulation going through the body.
Rick Sizemore: What does it mean to you, personally, to be able to do this?
Evan Graham: I’m very proud to be able to be part of that spear point to let other companies know that there are people in this world who, while they have these disabilities, they’re still confident and willing to take those strides, to be able to be a successful member of society.
David Leon: We are incredibly excited about Career Pathways and how the new grant will create a lot of opportunities for people with disabilities.
Rick Sizemore: David, it sounds like Evan is on a great career pathway. Evan Graham is an apprentice with For Eyes in the new pathways grant through the Virginia Department for Aging and Rehabilitative Services. Thanks for joining, Evan.
Evan Graham: Thanks, Rick.
Betsy Civilette: Well, today, we welcome Valerie Williams to our show. She recently became the director in the Office of Special Education Programs within the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services at the United States Department of Education. Williams most recently served for six years as senior director of government relations and external affairs at the National Association of State Directors of Special Education. She has decades of experience supporting state levels, special education leaders in their work to improve the outcomes for students with disabilities. Valerie’s also served as the Joseph P. Kennedy Public Policy Fellow on the US Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee, and managed the budgeting and finances for numerous multimillion dollar programs within the Departments of Navy and Air Force, as well as the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Now, that is a very impressive resume, Valerie. We give you a warm welcome to the podcast.
Valerie Williams: Thank you so much. I’m happy to be here with you today.
Betsy Civilette: Well, Valerie, first of all, congratulations on your new position. What an honor to lead the Office of Special Education Programs. How does it feel to take on such a responsibility?
Valerie Williams: I am extremely excited and very honored to be leading a team of such dedicated experts at OSEP. Not only are they extremely smart, but they are very passionate about the work and it’s thrilling to be working with them.
Betsy Civilette: Well, what are you most excited about in terms of your new duties at OSEP?
Valerie Williams: I feel a tremendous sense of urgency. I believe that things were not great for all of our students pre-COVID. I’m not necessarily here to take us back to a previous time, but I think COVID has magnified and exacerbated many issues that were already present. I think that, broadly speaking, our education systems take a long time to change.And what I’m excited about is that while we’re all thinking critically about what our students need and the innovation and collaboration and everything that’s been going on in the last couple years, changes are being made at a quicker pace. And I think COVID has presented an opportunity for us to make substantive change that can impact our students in the long run.
Betsy Civilette: Valerie, without getting down in the weeds, could you give us just a brief overview of the structure of OSEP and how it fits in at the Department of Education and how it sits alongside the rehabilitation services administration, recognizing that both your team and the team at RSA both serve people with disabilities?
Valerie Williams: Thank you for that. OSEP is actually a subunit of the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services, which is OSERS. And OSERS’ two main units are OSEP and RSA, which is the Rehabilitative Services Administration. That’s a mouthful. OSERS is unique in the department as our state stakeholders are broad in their range. They include infants, toddlers, children in school, and adults.
Betsy Civilette: Well, I’d like to talk in the time we have remaining about the Transition Tigers. It seems that helping youth find meaningful pathways into careers is so key in our world today. This transition steering committee, the Tigers seem to have all the key players from special education, vocational rehabilitation, working together to focus on the needs of youth with disabilities. Can you talk about their work and what you hope they will accomplish in the future?
Valerie Williams: The purpose of the OSERS’ transition steering committee, also known as the Tigers, is to facilitate all the collaborative efforts of OSERS to improve outcomes for students and youth with disabilities in their transition from secondary school to adulthood. They started as a community of practice in kind of a lunch and learn in 2004. And then they became an official internal OSERS work group in 2008. They actually came together initially just around shared interest and wanting to have a conversation. They have members from the OSERS’ Office of Policy and Planning and all the divisions within OSEP and RSA. And their main objectives are pretty much to support OSERS and collaborate across all the OSERS divisions on transition-related requirements and activities. They created a guide and, actually, it was updated in 2020 with the help of the Tigers and released in conjunction with VR 100 transition activities in August of 2020.
Valerie Williams: There’s a lot of work that is going on as well as work that is planned because we’ve looked at a Bureau of Labor Statistics’ reports on persons with disabilities in the labor force. And it would not be a surprise to anyone that there are large gaps between the employment of disabled Americans and non-disabled Americans. So, we’re going to continue to collaborate with our federal state and local partners to increase post-secondary opportunities, because I think the goal is to have more opportunities for competitive integrated employment and for independent living.Transition is one of the areas that is important to me. I don’t list things as priorities per se, but I have a list of things that are important.
Valerie Williams: And transition is important for two reasons; one is that I think there are too many of our families that have a loved one with a disability. And I’m talking about on the younger end that believe that their loved one will always be home with them, they will always be taking care of them, they will never be able to work, they will never be able to live independently. And so by the time we start talking about transition at age 14 or 16, whatever it happens to be in that state, I think it’s too late. And I think we’ve lost the opportunity to help create vision for our younger families that they can cultivate. So, by the time we get to the formal process, they’ve already had a chance to wrap their brain around it and figure out what it looks like for them. And I’ll give you an example. Growing up, our parents used to always tell my sister and I, from the time that we were very little, “You’re going to college or you’re going to the military. You’re going to college or you’re going to the military.” Told us forever.
Valerie Williams: And eventually it turned into, “You’re going to college and you’re going at least a three-hour bus right away,” right? And so we grew up with the mindset “we’re going to college and we’re going to three or four-hour bus right away.” And so it never dawned on us that we weren’t going to college and it never dawned on us to apply to a school in our local area. And so I wound up going to California and my sister wound up in North Carolina, but that was mainly because the vision that was set for us when we were younger and we all had a chance to develop that vision and dream together as a family and figure out what it looked like for us. And so I think it’s the same for our students with disabilities. If we can help cultivate and create that vision early on, then by the time the formal process starts, that will just be putting pen to paper and making the dreams a reality, if you will.
Valerie Williams: I don’t think that fixing this part will be a heavy lift. I think, mainly, it’s something that has to do with messaging and outreach and having discussions early on about what is possible and not a one-time conversation, but over time to keep the drum beat steady from the young age on up, as they get older until 14, 16; then everything formal will kick in. So that’s one thing in transition. That’s very important to me.
Valerie Williams: The other is that if we do everything that we should do, when there’s school age, there should be employment training, and there should be jobs waiting. And I feel like to not shore up that part of the system is a travesty. And so I would like to make sure that as they move through the system and they exit, that the rest of the system is working properly so that there is something for them to continue into, whatever that happens to look like. Whether it’s any type of post-secondary opportunity you can think of, whether it’s college, whether it is a job training and then intern employment, or whatever that is, I think we need to make sure that our system is showed up.
Valerie Williams: And that we create the vision for the younger set, we create the drum beat through the school age years, and that there’s something available based on whatever the needs and the interests are of that student as they’re leaving and trying to figure out what life looks like for them later. So, those are the two things in the way of transition that are extremely important to me. And in my meeting with the Transition Tigers, they’re excited. They were already excited. They’re excited that I’m excited and want to make this one of the things that we pay more attention to.
Betsy Civilette: Well, that was so well said. I mean, transition is so crucial. And I know at DARS, we focus a lot on pre-employment transition services, but you’re so right. Could you close with a favorite story about what drives you to do this work, to benefit students and people with disabilities?
Valerie Williams: Well, this is easy. This might be the easiest question you’ve asked because my husband and I happen to have a 10-year-old son who has Down syndrome. And initially, it started out as wanting to figure out what was out there for our son, because just like most people, most families, we were fairly unaware of the disability community broadly. We knew that it was there and existed, but didn’t have any real interaction. And so when our son was born, I felt the need to do something. I didn’t know what I needed to do, but I needed to do something. And we found our local county Arc, our local Prince George’s County ARC, which is very big, very active. And so I got involved. I wound up going with them to Annapolis in Maryland when they had a series of visits to see legislators about various things.
Valerie Williams: I had no idea what I was really going there for, had no experience in advocacy whatsoever, but I’m not afraid to talk. So I took a eight by 10 glossy of our child, and I went up there with them, and I whipped it out in the legislator’s office and I said, “I don’t know how all the other kids are doing, but this is my child and this is how he’s doing, and this is what’s needed in our system,” and I’m just going on and on. And so they said to me, after a couple months of doing this, “Why don’t you join the board for the ARC of Prince George’s County? You’re already doing the work.” And I said, “Okay, fine.” And then I did that for a while longer. And eventually someone said, “Why don’t you join the board for the ARC of Maryland? You’re already doing the work.” And so one thing kind of led to another.
Valerie Williams: Even though I was not doing disability policy or advocacy work at the time, this was all what I was doing on the side for fun, if you will. And at one point I got an opportunity to stop doing what I was previously doing for 18 years, which was budgeting and finance, and was able to get at the Joseph Kennedy Public Policy Fellowship that you mentioned. And I wound up on the Hill, doing disability policy and civil rights in the US Senate committee. And so that was a springboard to everything that came after that and where I am today. I have no problem saying that my path was not something, I think, can be duplicated. I think I pretty much… After our son was born, I walked through each open door and open window as it presented itself. And it felt like another opportunity to… Initially, it was to help my child, but then thinking about all of the other children that I know, that I’ve come in contact with in the community, and then I started thinking broadly about all the students across the nation and across the world, and about how… In my heart, I feel like I’ve always been a servant, and so I want to leave each person and each situation better off than when I encountered them.
Betsy Civilette: Valerie Williams is the new director of the Office of Special Education Programs. Thank you for being on our podcast, Valerie.
Valerie Williams: Thank you.
Rick Sizemore: It’s time for our National Clearinghouse report with the always entertaining and informative, Heather Servais. Welcome, Heather.
Heather Servais: Rick. It’s good to be back. Before I jump into my report, I really just have to say, wow, congratulations on the release of the music video for Work Makes the World Go Round.
Rick Sizemore: Oh, thank you so much. We’re excited about that.
Heather Servais: I just loved seeing the video and hearing the song and it’s so catchy. It’s just been staying with me all day.
Rick Sizemore: Well, it’s autism awareness or, as some say, autism acceptance month. And I bet you have some things in the Clearing has for us.
Heather Servais: I do. I have four different resources that I want to share with you. All of these resources were created by the VR Technical Assistance Center for Quality Employment, also known as VRTAC-QE. To dive right into what we’ve got, we’ve got two fact sheets. If you’re just looking for some quick information about autism, we have an autism in the workplace fact sheet that goes over some statistics and gives you some other additional reading materials about autism and employment. We also have a fact sheet that discusses businesses and their success in hiring people with autism and some ideas, techniques, and approaches for including individuals with autism in the workplace.
Heather Servais: And then I have two on-demand training events that are geared towards different audiences. The first is Autism 101, which is an on-demand webinar. So, you can take this webinar at any time that you have available. And it really goes over the characteristics of autism and how it can present in the workplace. You’ll learn about possible accommodations for new hires who have autism and how to support them from the time of job application, all the way through employment. And then the last resource I have for you is an autism and employment on-demand training. And this training gives you tools and resources to work with people with autism and help them with obtaining and maintaining employment. So, for all of the vocational rehabilitation professionals, employment specialists, this is for you because, during this webinar, you’ll learn to explore tools for sensory-based accommodations. You’ll even learn a little bit about motivational interview strategies for working with adults with autism, and then also give you some tools to help prepare you young adults with autism spectrum disorder for interviews and employment,
Rick Sizemore: And we’ll have links to all those resources in our show notes at vrworkforcestudio.com. Heather Servais leads the National Clearinghouse of Rehabilitation Training Materials. Thank you, Heather.
Heather Servais: My pleasure.
Rick Sizemore: Here’s Lynn Harris, director of the Wilson Workforce and Rehabilitation Center Foundation.
Lynn Harris: The foundation is pleased to bring you these exciting stories of how vocational rehabilitation is changing people’s lives. We thank all of our partners in podcasting who made this episode possible. Aladdin Foods Management, fueling students, community, and culture. The Council of State Administrators of Vocational Rehabilitation, bringing talent to America’s workforce for 100 years. CVS Health, revolutionizing the consumer health experience. And the Hershey Company, named to CNBC’s list of America’s most just companies. You can find out more about becoming a sponsor at wwrfc.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 vocation rehabilitation here at the VR Workforce Studio. Until next time. I’m Rick Sizemore.
Steve Sweeney: 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 for promotional considerations.