My Unaccommodated Career
By Gary Roberts.
Gary Roberts worked as a counselor for Virginia Rehabilitative Services for 19 years.
I had already quit school when I contracted mumps from my younger cousin. The rest of my education was destined to take place in the school of hard knocks. I was a 17-year-old living in the coalfields of southwest Virginia. No one in my family had ever gone to college.
Somewhere between my 16th and 17th birthdays, I went to sleep one night and woke up the next morning deaf.
Once doctors confirmed that the condition was permanent, there was additional danger for my future. In the society in which I grew up, people with disabilities had no status. If nothing was expected of me before I became deaf, absolutely nothing was expected of me once I was labeled "deaf and dumb."
But by the sheerest of good fortune, my uncle had a cousin who was a rehabilitation counselor. My uncle got the counselor to talk to my mother and father. He told them about a special school for the deaf and the possibility that I might some day go to college. So I was enrolled at the Virginia School for the Deaf and Blind in Staunton, Virginia.
Once I walked through those gates, I entered a new world.
As a deaf person, I had more potential than I would ever have had as a hearing person. The years of hearing had given me exposure to language. I had little formal education, but, compared to a person born deaf, I achieved way off the curve for a deaf person in language arts.
When I entered the school, I was placed in the eighth grade; in one year I went from the eighth grade to the twelfth grade. My success had nothing to do with intelligence. It was just that, due to my age of onset of deafness, I was closer to meeting the expectations of the hearing world.
My family moved to Maryland, and when I was accepted at Gallaudet, Maryland Vocational Rehabilitation paid for some of my bills. I graduated in 1971 and went to work as a caseworker in Washington, D.C. I was the only deaf employee.
After a few years of work, I applied to and was I was accepted at graduate school at the University of Maryland School of Social Work. But when I applied to vocational rehabilitation again, this time for an interpreter, they turned me down, saying that I had worked with a bachelor's degree, and they did not feel that I needed a MSW to be employed.
I had enough political awareness to ask my congressman to help. Soon I received a letter saying vocational rehabilitation would pay for my interpreter services in graduate school. I would have to find my own interpreter, though, and set up a contract with vocational rehabilitation to pay for the services.
I survived being the only deaf person in the program and graduated with the MSW degree. I returned to Virginia, wrote a grant for a program and got hired by Virginia voc rehab as a counselor.
The agency then faced the issue of accommodating my disability. A secretarial position was created part-time secretary, part-time interpreter it was understood that the person hired would learn sign language "later on."
Although there were others with disabilities working for Virginia voc rehab, they were located at other offices; it seemed I was the only field employee who required accommodation to perform my job.
I was to learn that vocational rehabilitation was as reluctant an employer as was private business when it came to accommodation in fact, many of the employers I worked with in private industry exhibited more sophistication in dealing with disabled applicants and employees.
I was assigned a general caseload. I had clients with every sort of disability in fact I had very few deaf clients.
Clients with severe disabilities presented problems to the voc rehab status quo. They tended to stay around too long, and often needed multiple services. To a counselor, they implied hard work and problems with meeting objectives. The idea was to structure your caseload so that you met your performance objectives and to steer clear of things that implied work.
My deafness made it hard to establish effective communication with clients. I had people who could sign in a limited fashion working as interpreters. The agency hired these people; I had no supervision over my accommodations, nor was I part of the decision-making process as to who was hired.
I was promised verbally that the agency would recruit a qualified interpreter for me, but it never happened. I waited patiently.
Over the next few years, I was swept along with the demands of my caseload. My superiors never asked about my accommodations. I kept raising the issue with my supervisors and kept receiving the same promise. Everyone expressed good intentions, but nothing ever happened. No supervisor ever accompanied me to the field or made any effort to do hands-on supervision.
Over the years, I had perfect job performance evaluations.
I got what I got from the clients through limited sign interpretation. Since I had speech, I spoke to the clients myself, since I had an interpreter qualified to do voice-sign interpreting.
I used the relay system a lot when it came into existence; that's often how I communicated with clients. I worked ten to twelve hours a day.
Finally, I started filing complaints with the agency over my lack of accommodation. I filled first with the state affirmative action office a complaint on failure to make reasonable accommodations. I filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
I had responsibility for over one hundred cases people whom I was to maintain regular contact with; to communicate with. I practiced a policy of total disclosure concerning clients' rights. I did not just hand out booklets on the subject of rights and remedies; I explained the law and brought to people's attentions the agency toll-free line giving the client direct access to every level of decision making.
Most counselors hid this number. If clients called, it was documented by supervision as a negative, which could appear in performance evaluations. However, I encouraged people to call and to take issue with policies with which they did not agree. I viewed training a client in self-advocacy as a major part of my intervention with the client. The result was that I generated a lot of calls from my caseload to supervision and the state office. I also had several complaints from consumers.
The agency used one such complaint to open a system-wide investigation of my work. But I welcomed it this was really the first time that management had taken my situation seriously.
I hoped they would address the issue of interpreter services. I hoped they would discuss the effect that having a deaf person intervening with non-deaf clients had on quality of case services. I had established a mechanism for generating continuing feedback from clients, and I did have concerns that my disability was impacting my intervention with clients, and I hoped that their report would address those issues which concerned me. I asked them to involve the state coordinator for the deaf in the investigation. I was hoping that she could contribute her personal insight into deafness and interpreter qualifications.
When the report was issued, though, it didn't touch on my professional concerns. It focused on the shortcomings in my communication skills I did not pay attention, I did not understand all of the time what was being asked of me, people often did not understand my speech.
If you gave the issues merit, they were coming eighteen years after the fact the years since I had been hired and had worked in this position. If the conclusions of the investigation were true, the agency had seriously violated clients' rights. The 1973 Rehabilitation Act's Section 503 requires that clients have equal access and equal opportunity to take advantage of services. The nature of the law and the obligation of the agency would have implied that they should have been supervising my intervention with clients. This was typical of supervision in the agency, though their style was supervision by crisis.
The issue of the quality of my accommodations was not addressed in the report. I was told that they had accommodated my disability; that the issue was my job performance. I did not see how the two could be separated.
I was told that I was being put in charge of coordinating my own accommodations. When I needed an interpreter, I would have to call one and arrange to contract with him/her. I was also told that if I received consumer complaints, my position would be in jeopardy.
And those annoying phone calls from my clients on the 800 complaint line had to stop, I was told. I would interpret policy strictly as it was written or told to me. I would become a good soldier or I could get out.
At the end, I had an office, a computer, and a phone. I was told that I could contract for interpreter services when I needed them.
Two-thirds of the time, I could not find an interpreter with whom to contract when I needed one. I sat in the office, isolated and demoralized. My effectiveness as a counselor was nil. My clients were suffering because they did not have access to me when they needed me.
After 19 years as a counselor, I walked out.
My becoming deaf opened up a panorama of life which I would never have experienced otherwise. I felt that I could shape my own destiny and control my involvement in a professional manner. What I did not understand was the pressure to conform and the depth of discrimination as practiced against disabled individuals within the agency itself.
I think state rehabilitation agencies have outlived their time. Individuals with disabilities need real control and decision-making power. It will never come through the state vocational rehabilitation system.
Complaints of any kind cannot be tolerated. In view of our current position regarding customer services, you must take appropriate steps to insure that clients and others understand services of our agency and that we cannot promise what we cannot provide. . . . You must be sure that you appropriately advise customers and clients of their rights, but beyond that we should not invite them to complain. . . .
It is and will continue to be your responsibility to organize and use most expeditiously the time of interpreters, not due to economic or administrative purposes, but simply due to the limited number of interpreter hours we have been able to obtain. . . .
-- Memo from Larry A. Overbay, Human Services Manager, to Gary Roberts, Dec., 19, 1994
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