NEW CAREER OPTIONS HELP THOSE WITH DISABILITIES
Words by Mary Ann Littell/Photography by John Emerson
o be disabled is to face a world where the simplest activities — holding a job, shopping, cooking, doing laundry, driving a car, developing and maintaining relationships — can be insurmountable tasks. Consider the plight of a 55-year-old man recently diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS). Because of his disability, he had to leave the job he’d held for years. Making matters worse, he was unable to drive his car. The loss of job and independence sent him into a deep depression, and he seldom left his house. Eventually his distressed family encouraged him to contact the New Jersey Division of Vocational Rehabilitation Services (DVRS), a statewide agency helping individuals with physical disabilities find appropriate employment.
This story, and many like it, has an upbeat ending, thanks to DVRS counselor Stacey Smith, a graduate of the UMDNJ- School of Health Related Profession’s (SHRP) Master’s program in rehabilitation counseling, who tackled the man’s problems head-on. First, Smith had his car modified with handicap controls and sent him for driver’s training, all paid for by DVRS. She arranged for psychotherapy, also paid for by DVRS, to address the man’s depression. The two met regularly and Smith provided counseling to identify realistic vocational goals. Over time he became more hopeful about his future. Smith helped him find a part-time job as a greeter, which accommodates his physical limitations, and he’s been working successfully for more than two years. As a result, the man’s outlook on life has altered dramatically and he’s back to being a productive member of his community.
The world is changing for people who are disabled— whether the disability is the result of mental illness, developmental disorders, an illness such as MS, or trauma—thanks to specialized counselors working in innovative social programs geared toward maximizing productivity and quality of life. These programs enable many disabled individuals to function and thrive in their communities rather than languishing in hospitals or other institutions.
UMDNJ trains students for a variety of occupations supporting people with disabilities. The University’s Department of Psychiatric Rehabilitation and Counseling Professions was launched by SHRP in 1997. “Many people think this is a new field, but it’s actually been around for awhile,” says department chair Kenneth Gill, PhD, CPRP. “Our students learn to evaluate people’s capabilities and find creative ways to integrate them into their communities. With the right support, many people with disabilities can be mainstreamed into everyday life: back to school, to work, to living on their own.” This support involves various combinations of counseling, education, vocational rehabilitation, psychiatric treatment, medications, and independent living and social skills training. A pioneer in Web-based learning, SHRP is well-known for offering innovative online educational options that appeal to working professionals who want more education and credentials.
The department offers five different programs in the area of rehabilitation counseling: four of them in psychiatric rehabilitation (certificate, Bachelor’s, Master’s and PhD) and one in rehabilitation counseling. Psychiatric rehabilitation helps those with mental illness, including schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, major depression and other psychotic disorders, severe depression and traumatic brain injury. Rehabilitation counseling assists individuals with all types of disabilities.
This type of work requires empathy, patience and strong communication skills. “Many people with mental illness have difficulty expressing their thoughts and feelings, so you really have to be a good listener,” notes Gill. Potential careers include jobs in social service agencies: for example, case manager, residential counselor, mental health counselor, habilitation counselor, employment specialist, and vocation counselor. SHRP alumna Zakia Clay’s goal is to improve the quality of life of a disenfranchised group of people coping with mental illness. With a bachelor’s degree in psychology and psychiatric rehabilitation, which SHRP offers jointly with Kean University, Felician College and Georgian Court University, she works as a team leader for Bridgeway Rehabilitation Services, a mental health agency assisting adults with serious mental illness. Clay enrolled in SHRP’s program as an undergraduate psychology major at Kean because she wanted to be sure she would graduate with marketable job skills. “The people we serve are a mix of ages and backgrounds. Many have no families and a large number are substance abusers. They’ve been in and out of hospitals and have faced a lot of trauma,” she explains. “Our objective is to help them maintain and secure housing in a community of their choice.”
Bridgeway has many programs assisting a wide variety of individuals with mental illness. One of their programs, Residential Intensive Support Team or RIST, helps with the transition from hospital to independent living. Counselors work with clients from start to finish: surfing the Internet to print out leads on affordable housing, looking at apartments and negotiating leases. “After they move in, we help with budgeting, paying bills, you name it,” says Clay. Clay recounts the story of a woman with a long history of psychiatric problems who had been on the streets since she was 14. “She had numerous hospitalizations all her life, until she came to us,” says Clay. “With counseling, she’s now living on her own and has not been hospitalized in more than two years. Outcomes like this are very satisfying.”
Many students enrolling in SHRP’s programs in this field seek to strengthen their skills in the face of such challenging work, and at the same time qualify for higher-level positions. One of them, Geraldine Agricola, works at the Youth Consultation Service (YCS), an agency helping people with developmental disabilities and mental health disorders learn to live more independently. Agricola first came to SHRP for a certificate program in psychiatric rehabilitation a few years ago at her employer’s request. “Right away I saw that my new skills enabled me to help more people return to community-based living,” she says. This success spurred her to get an associate’s degree, and she is now studying for her bachelor’s. Agricola oversees a residence in Paterson for six adults with developmental disabilities ages 21 to 27. These individuals are unable to live alone without support. The residence contains three duplex apartments, each housing two people. Agricola supervises a staff of 16, providing 24-hour supervision to the residents. “We teach our residents how to shop on their own, how to cook and clean up,” she says. “It’s very gratifying to see them learn these basic but necessary skills.” Sometimes work is part of the picture as well. Agricola recently helped one resident secure employment in a bowling alley. “He’s doing well,” she says. “Not everybody is able to hold a job. But when it works out, I’m thrilled. Being able to help means everything to me.”
Other graduates, like Lauren Klein, enter the field for a career change. She always wanted to help people with disabilities, but found that psychology-related jobs were hard to come by without a graduate degree. So she enrolled at SHRP for a master’s in rehabilitation counseling. At Jewish Vocational Service (JVS) of Metro West New Jersey in East Orange, Klein supervises a team of 10, assisting young adults with emotional, neurological, physical, learning, psychiatric and developmental disabilities, as well as those with autism spectrum disorders — to help them set vocational goals and ultimately find appropriate and satisfying work.
|LAUREN KLEIN, COORDINATOR OF REHABILITATION SERVICES|
“We provide vocational evaluations through testing and interviews to determine a person’s aptitudes and interests,” Klein explains. “The next step is vocational training, or in some cases, college. We’ve sent students to community and four-year colleges, for vocational training (culinary, automotive, office and retail), even into the military.” JVS holds an intensive career camp each summer, sending students on ‘field trips’ where they work for a day at various locations.
As the rehabilitation field grows, the department has expanded as well. Among its ‘firsts’ include the establishment of the first PhD program in psychiatric rehabilitation, the first Master’s degree devoted solely to training leaders in the field through internet delivery, and authoring the first definitive textbook in the field.
“The job market is very strong,” says Gill. “Our graduates are sought after for a variety of positions and many are offered jobs before graduation.”
“It’s wonderful to work in a thriving environment, in a field that’s growing,” says Klein. “JVS is continuing to develop new programs and hiring new staff, as there is so much need in this field.”