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Lillian Thoms, Tony's VR Counselor

Working as a VR Counselor

When I first started I had a general caseload, which means that I had, you know, people with: back injury, vision, hearing loss, everything. But my bosses learned that I liked to work with individuals with severe disabilities like MR (mental retardation), dual diagnosis, BD (behavior disorder) - that was me. So they started shifting stuff around and giving other people the more -- I won't say the easier ones, because nobody's necessarily easy to find employment for when they have a disability -- but the individuals that weren't so needy. My background's in juvenile delinquency and gangs, so that's how I also got the clients from public schools.

I work with residential counselors, case managers, parents, guardians, and such, more than most VR counselors. And I've got to deal a lot with public administrators, because a lot of the public administrators are guardians for my clients.

I mostly deal with people with severe disabilities, as in mental retardation - people that have cerebral palsy, some people that have combinations of CP (cerebral palsy) and MR (mental retardation), some individuals that have MR, drug/alcohol, and MI (mental illness). And I work with the high school kids, which they're needy as well, but they're not as needy as my individuals that have all those dual diagnoses.

What it takes to be a VR Counselor

One thing I'd tell new VR staff - they have to be extremely flexible. Sometimes I do have a set schedule and I might have somebody scheduled every half-hour out of an eight-hour day. But then issues will come up that you need to deal with right now, which means then, you have to juggle. So you have to be flexible. There's a lot of times that I'm mumbling and "I don't want to stay late". But it's not an option because I know these people, and it's not just a job. I'm trying to make a difference.

You have to be able to cut off your own personal life once you get to work. I try to do that, and sometimes work actually helps me get away from personal things better. When I can talk with people and actually see somebody else's disability or hear about their disability, it makes me appreciate that I am making a difference.

What else can I tell you about my job... On a daily basis we have to type in or dictate our reported contacts from the previous day on individuals we've met with. We need to have those contacts in the files so if anybody pulled a case file while we're not in the office or they have questions, everybody knows what's going on. I would say probably at least 70 percent of my job is shuffling paperwork.

You pretty well have to know the time span it takes you to do certain things. Like if I'm doing a plan, I know that it probably takes maybe five or ten minutes and I can have ten of them and have them done in an hour. Report of contacts are a little different you have to make sure that every detail is in the report. You guys might have talked about something, but if it's not in the report of contact, and if an appeal comes up and they say, "Okay, well, you told me I could do so-and-so." You need to be able to go to the file and figure out specifically what was said.

Things People Misunderstand about VR

A lot of people think if one counselor says no to something, another counselor is going to say yes. I don't think they realize that we all go by the policy - we're following policy and procedure as a guideline. I mean, there's a lot of ways that we can work with it until eventually we can get a person declared eligible if it's kind of questionable - but it ultimately has to be based on what is in the Rehab Act. Some people expect that, if they have a disability and are declared eligible, they can go to school and VR will pay for it. They don't know that we have to go through financial guidelines, looking at their income, for instance, to see how much support we can give them. Or if they've got a job and they're maintaining it, and there're no problems, they're considered not to have any vocational impediment, so they just aren't eligible. It all goes back to the guidelines set out in the Rehab Act.

I think people know that our primary goal is to get an individual who's disabled into employment where they can be successful. But I don't know that they realize the steps in the process - the assessments and eligibility criteria, the IWRP, the status codes, all the things that go into the process.

Relationships within the VR System

For me, the most important thing someone new to rehab needs to know is that they need to be flexible. They need to know when their better time for doing different jobs is - morning, mid-day, night, whatever. Also be able to accept criticism, 'cause sometimes you'll get it. It will be things like: "I really don't like how you handled this. Could you do it different?" And when that happens, first I'll explain why I did it the way I did it. And then I'll say, "Well, how would you have handled it sitting in my shoes?" I think that's how we've built so much of a relationship with all the case managers and providers. They know they can tell me if I'm doing something wrong - and that I'll tell them likewise.

I used to sit back and complain about the providers as far as, like, job placement. "What is taking so long? Why can't they find a simple job in food service?" But after I tried it myself a few times, I had a totally different attitude. This is not easy. And so, now, if somebody's been sitting in job development a long time, I don't get on the provider's case. I'll call and see if there are options I can explore for them, help them with this person's placement. It's going to help them, too, but it's going to help the individual most because he or she's the one that's sitting in my case file - and sitting at home suffering.

The biggest frustration I face in placing people in jobs is employers , when they hear "an individual that has a disability", they automatically think - someone in a wheelchair, or who can't communicate verbally. And I never said anything like that. I try to explain to each employer that some of these individuals got injured on a job. Some of them fell down the steps. Some of them were abused when they were little. It could happen to any one of us. They stop and think, "Okay, maybe she's got a point. Give them a try."

My Philosophy of VR

There are only three other counselors that do supported employment - I do primary supported employment where I have individuals with severe disabilities. The others are doing more standard vocational guidance, placement sort of things, but not the intensive supported employment that I deal with. So it's hard for me to go and talk with other counselors because they'll say, "Bev, I don't have a clue as to what you're saying." But I'm hard headed. I believe there's a job for everybody. We just have to find it.

On the other hand, it's not always the job people expect. Sometimes I've had to tell parents things they do not want to hear. I mean, everybody has a place in society somewhere - but the dream they have for their child may just not be possible. And you have to tell them - that's not going to work. We need to find something that fits better. That's really a touchy subject. You never know if you're going to get parents that are agreeable and will listen to what you're saying, or if you're going to get parents that will go to central office, then go to Protection and Advocacy. So you have to kind of tread lightly. That's why, in the beginning, you have to build rapport with the parents, or the guardian.

I love the cases that are so different they are like nothing we've dealt with before. That's when it's fun. We say, "We need to figure this out, and do it in the right way". So that's fun. And I like talking.

On the other hand, I hate the paperwork. And that computer screen. Of course, we've had individuals that work in central office who have come and said we should look at paperwork as a way for us to give, to help our clients get what they want. I've tried to look at it that way, but I keep thinking, "It's just something keeping me from talking to these individuals." So I don't like the paperwork.

Reality Testing

I would say, probably, the biggest barrier is trying to decipher what's appropriate for each person. Some of the vocational goals that individuals select are totally unrealistic. And then trying to determine, okay, how can I get their vocational goals switched around to something they actually can do and be successful in, but is still similar to what they really want?

I had an individual once who came in and wanted to be a chemist. Oh, bless his heart, I kept saying, "Sweetie, no, you don't." And he said, "Yes, I do." And I said, "Okay, I'll tell you what we'll do. We'll set up an assessment site for four hours. You can go try it out. Then after those four hours, I want you to come back and tell me what you thought of it." And he came back and he said, "That's the most boring job I've ever done." Because he didn't have the cognitive skills to really do the reactions, they basically just had him pouring stuff in little tubes and that's all he did. He said, "I don't want to do that. I don't even want to see anything that looks like chemistry - test tubes, nothing." And so, basically, that's how we help people switch gears. Sometimes they just want somebody to let them give it a try. Because they're so used to everybody telling them, "No, you can't do this. You don't have the ability."

One strength for me, I think, is advocating for the clients. Because if somebody else says no, I will say why?

I had a case this morning where they told me to look at the closed case file before I met with the individual. They said, "He had a case with a previous VR office and you need to contact the counselor 'cause she said she has an earful to tell you." And my response to that was, "I don't care what she thought about the client. I need to make my own judgment with this individual." The only way I'm going to build a relationship with the client is if I go in knowing nothing.

When I meet with someone to discuss how we can help them find a job, I try to focus more on the individual and not whoever else is involved in the case: case managers, parents, partners, guardians, whoever might be trying to give another opinion. And the clients appreciate that. Sometime they'll say "You're the first person that actually wanted to have a conversation with me and not talk at me."

Comments about Tony

Now Tony - He's something. You can tell, just talking to him, his mind is just working away. He's shy at first, but once you get him talking he'll talk your ear off. He's just interested in so many things - his computer work, swimming, bowling, the Special Olympics, all his friends. His Mom tells me now he's trying to start a band. This is a young man who is determined to make things happen in his life.

And his mother, Sharon - she's a real gem, too. She works so hard to advocate for him. I see an awful lot of parents who don't even know to ask for things, for appropriate supports and accommodations. They just take whatever someone wants to offer. I always prefer working with someone who's not like that, someone who is determined to get the most for their child. I know Sharon's struggling a little right now, trying to think about shifting over from the school setting to the job setting for Tony, and what that is going to mean. And we're going to have to work through things as she learns what VR can and can't do, just like everybody else, but it's always a pleasure to work with someone as energetic as she is.

Plus it's clear that she wants to find things that Tony wants to do. She's not looking to force anything on him that he doesn't want to do. Sometimes you get parent advocates who have very firm ideas about what their child is going to do, whether the child wants to or not. You know, sort of "We know what is best for him, so this is what he will do." It's kind of like the old medical model of VR. And that can be a problem, because we don't do things that way anymore. But Sharon's very aware of what Tony wants and ways to try to meet those dreams. So I think we can find something. Tony's got a lot of potential, it's just a matter of finding opportunities in the community that match those potentials.

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Copyright 2002, Curators of the University of Missouri, Columbia
The information on this page is fictionalized from a real story.