Divisions link Alaskans with disabilities to work experience, jobs

"" Donna Heilman

When Donna Heilman arrived in Alaska in 2010, she started job hunting right away. She had plenty of work experience, including in her family’s automotive business, but Heilman, who is deaf, said in an email that “it was a rough road” until she found the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation in the state Department of Labor & Workforce Development.

Heilman’s not alone. Americans with disabilities faced unemployment rates nearly twice that of the non-disabled population in 2010 and 2011, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

To level the playing field, Vocational Rehabilitation works to help Alaskans with disabilities find and keep jobs. That goal matches Senior & Disabilities Services’ mission to promote health, well-being and safety for individuals with disabilities, seniors and vulnerable adults in ways that foster independence, personal choice and dignity.

Together, the divisions cooperate to move Alaskans from volunteer positions to jobs.

Vocational Rehabilitation educates employers statewide about working with people with disabilities, whether they’re recently disabled or have experienced a disability all their lives. The division looks for both volunteer positions and jobs that are good fits for clients.

Senior & Disabilities Services has had many Vocational Rehabilitation client volunteers over the past several years. Deaf clients get a bonus — Senior & Disabilities Services Director Duane Mayes is fluent in American Sign Language!

The goal is to build skills and current work experience that support the client’s career interests. Clients also get practice negotiating general workplace interactions. Heilman began volunteering for Senior and Disabilities Services as an office assistant in February at the suggestion of her Vocational Rehabilitation support team, Michaela Phelps and Mahala Slone.

“I thought this experience might just be worth my time because I would be able to show my skills and have the opportunity to show that I can learn my role,” Heilman wrote in an email about her job quest. “I have fun learning.”

“My supervisors seemed to be happy with my skill level and attention to detail. They encouraged me and continued to teach me as much as they could,” Heilman wrote. “(An office assistant) position opened at SDS, and I became a state of Alaska employee soon after.”

Vocational Rehabilitation counselors provide their clients with ongoing support and assistive technology as needed. Heilman, for example, uses an iPad to communicate with her coworkers as well as a hearing aid and lip reading.

Heilman and her supervisor and co-workers have bonded.

They “treat me like an equal,” Heilman said. “I just love my job.”

And that’s what the divisions’ cooperation is all about.

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