Place in the Workforce
by Tamar Asedo
work if you had training?
transportation? special equipment?
If you had to give
up your last job because of MS, if you are looking to enter or re-enter
the work force, or even if you are currently employed but worried about
the impact of MS on your job—you owe it to yourself to make a call
to your state’s vocational rehabilitation program. Under federal
law, every state has one. The formal name varies, but “voc rehab”
generally offers amazing possibilities. To be eligible, a person must
have a physical, mental, emotional, or learning disability that interferes
with the ability to work. Invisible problems such as MS-related fatigue
or cognitive problems are included in this list.
people sitting in the room can all have MS, but the degree to which
MS impacts their ability to work and the services they need are different
for each of them,” said Erin Treadwell of California’s
Department of Rehabilitation. “We make sure the person’s
goals are reasonable and attainable,” she said. In most states,
voc rehab staff seek flexible solutions to help people with MS gain
or retain employment as full-time, part-time, or self-employed workers.
“We look at
a person’s strengths, abilities, and capabilities to achieve whatever
is the vocational goal,” said Rita Martin, deputy director of Indiana’s
Vocational Rehabilitation Division.
George Knight of
Muscatine, Iowa, was referred to his state’s voc rehab service when
he applied for federal food stamps to help extend his Social Security
Disability benefits. A 43-year-old construction worker who built houses
for a living, Knight was diagnosed with MS four years ago, after his sensitivity
to heat made him unable to continue working. He also experienced numbness,
loss of balance, speech problems, cognitive difficulties, and loss of
His dream was to
open his own woodworking business. “I can build just about anything
you can imagine out of wood,” he said. The Iowa voc rehab team helped
him write a business plan, and he obtained a $2,500 state grant to buy
tools and lumber. Knight signed the papers and set up shop in his garage.
“My pipe dream
turned into reality!” he exclaimed. “I don’t have to
work for anybody. I work for myself. I couldn’t have done it without
business means he can pace himself and work when he feels up to it—usually
early morning before it gets hot and evening after the sun goes down.
He continues to get Social Security Disability benefits and, as of 2001,
could earn $740 each month, after deducting all his “impairment-related
work expenses.” These include the cost of whatever it takes to permit
him to work.
Most state voc rehab
programs offer job readiness training, job coaching, job placement, mobility
training, and assistive technology assessments. For people with MS, counselors
try to find jobs that are indoors, can be performed sitting down, and
are part-time or have flexible hours to accommodate fatigue problems.
Most states encourage education or retraining within their own systems,
at two-year and four-year state institutions. Many provide short-term
computer training programs.
anything that helps someone go to work or maintain employment,”
said Cecile Bentley, assistant administrator for field operations at Oregon’s
Vocational Rehabilitation Division. Oregon takes a particularly aggressive
approach through its Employed Persons with Disabilities program, or EPD.
“The risk of losing Medicaid benefits is one of the major barriers
to employment,” said Scott Lay, EPD’s coordinator. “People
shouldn’t have to choose between employment and health insurance.”
In Oregon, they don’t have to.
The state amended
its Medicaid plan to allow people to have earnings that don’t count
against them for Medicaid eligibility, after the “trial work period”
is over. Federal law now allows every state to do this, although they
are not mandated to. The benefits of an aggressive program are very clear
to Scott Lay.
Sue Kuenzi, age 35,
of Monmouth, Oregon, was working on a master’s degree in rehabilitation
counseling when she was diagnosed with MS. “I never anticipated
that I would need voc rehab services,” she said.
But when her health insurance wouldn’t cover disease-modifying treatment,
Oregon’s EPD advocated for her to get Medicaid, which now pays for
her Copaxone. To enable her to keep her job at a community college, EPD
outfitted her with a scooter to get around campus, hand-controls for her
van, and a lift to get the scooter into the van.
“If we didn’t
provide this program, clients like Sue Kuenzi wouldn’t be working,
and they’d just be in the system,” said Lay. “Most would
be on Medicaid anyway. This program allows the people to work and pay
taxes. They contribute to the economy. To us, it’s a no-brainer.
Everyone benefits.” So, in Oregon, a person in this program can
retain Medicaid coverage no matter how much she or he earns.
Even so, Gary Herron,
49, of Albany, Oregon, hopes to earn enough money through his new business
to no longer need any disability benefits. A wildlife artist who created
wood sculptures and paintings for 25 years, he had to stop sculpting because
of weakness caused by MS.
rehab provided him with a voice-activated computer and scanner to make
prints of his paintings. He also received a grant to buy art supplies.
Perhaps more valuable than the financial boost was the emotional one.
Herron now has the interest and confidence to start working again, and
he’s currently trying to get a van with hand controls and a lift
so he can drive to different sites to display his work. He’s also
writing a book on how to make wood sculptures, a book about living with
MS, and his autobiography.
with a voc rehab counselor is the first step to determining how the
service can help you. Some people need home modifications to be able
to work. These could include wider doorways and a ramp for wheelchair
access into and out of the home, a chair lift to get to a home office
upstairs, even converting a tub into a roll-in shower so a wheelchair
user can stay at home where the business is. In New York State, home
modifications can be provided to homemakers with MS who don’t
do any other work, according to Lisa K. Roller, a counselor for the
needs might include personal attendant services, on-the-job training,
help with reading or note-taking, and transportation to and from training
programs. Most states also offer incentives to employers who hire people
Steve Shivers, the
commissioner of Alabama’s Department of Vocational Rehabilitation
Services, believes his program is one of Alabama’s best economic
investments. “For every $1 spent, $20 will be returned to the state’s
economy through our clients’ employment,” he said.
The federal Vocational
Rehabilitation Act of 1973 requires every state to offer such services.
While not all programs are the same, you won’t know the possible
ways your state can help you unless you ask. Look in the governmental
offices section of your phone book, or type your state’s name and
the words “vocational rehabilitation” into any search engine
on the Internet.
Do it today!