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State's rehabilitation services help to 'level the playing fiel

Editor's note: This is first in a series of articles highlighting October as National Disability Employment Awareness Month.

by Gail Marsh

ASSISTANT CITY EDITOR

A factory worker is seriously injured on the job. Will he be able to perform his duties after medical treatment, or will he ever be able to return to his previous job?

A computer programmer is having increasing difficulty using her hands and her arthritis is becoming worse. Will she have to quit working, or are there ways to work around her physical impairment?

A high school student has trouble with school work because of a learning disability. What types of jobs will he be able to do?

The West Virginia Division of Rehabilitation Services has the answers to these and other difficult questions surrounding disabilities and the workforce.

"The most important thing we do is give hope for employment. Our job is to level the playing field so that people with disabilities will have access to jobs that are open to everyone else," said Larry Bell, district manager of the District II state Division of Rehabilitation Services office, located in Clarksburg on West Main Street.

To bring attention to the need for more services and opportunities for people with disabilities, Congress designated the month of October as "National Disability Employment Awareness Month." In the past fiscal year, the state Division of Rehabilitation Services has provided information and services to more than 15,558 residents.

According to Bell, West Virginia is divided into seven geographical regions. District II is comprised of Harrison, Marion, Monongalia, Preston, Taylor, Upshur, Barbour, Lewis, Doddridge, Calhoun and Gilmer counties.

With a staff of 28 counselors, a support staff of 15 and a number of school and specialty counselors, District II can assist with evaluation, counseling, guidance, training and placement services.

More than 2,0000 people received some type of services from the Clarksburg office during the last fiscal year, and 506 individuals were rehabilitated, the highest number in the state.

"That's what our job is all about, to help people live and work independently and be integrated into the community," said Linda Perris, employment specialist with District II.

Though the District II office is the best place to begin for information and services, the Clarksburg office also collaborates with a number of other local agencies who provide services.

The Harrison County Sheltered Workshop in Stonewood, a non-profit corporation, provides services to persons with disabilities through actual work and other activities in order to help them obtain their highest level of social and vocational skills.

Robin Wilson, an employee services specialist, said the best part of her job is watching the satisfaction of the 30 or so clients who work at the Sheltered Workshop, whether they are working to repair a wicker chair or creating a Christmas craft.

"It gives the clients a real purpose, and they do good work, everything from creating wooden Nativity scenes to repairing antique furniture," she said.

Workshop clients also provide janitorial services for all the state and federal buildings in Harrison and Doddridge counties.

The biggest money-making items sold at the workshop are the surveyor stakes, first purchased by the state Department of Highways and now sold in several states. According to James Anderson, floor supervisor, as many as 5,000 stakes may be sold in a day's time.

All the scrap wood is recycled at the workshop, he said, down to the sawdust that is sold to people who use it in their horse barns.

"I like working with the clients and watching them day by day improving. It's the best job I've ever had," he said.

Job Squad Inc., a private, non-profit, community rehabilitation program located in Nutter Fort, also helps to secure employment for individuals with disabilities.

"We go out and secure service contracts .and place people with severe disabilities on those contracts. They become our employees," said Lisa Marsh, Job Squad rehabilitation director.

Job Squad currently has employees doing custodial and maintenance work at the Criminal Justice Information Service's FBI Center, the Louis A. Johnson Veterans Administration Medical Center, the Social Security Administration and the West Virginia Lottery.

"We have a large pool of employees to choose from who can do basic things like cleaning, while others can professionally strip and wax floors. We're always looking for people who will work with us to help place individuals on-site," she said.

Assistant city editor Gail Marsh can be reached at 626-1447 or by e-mail at gmarsh@exponent-telegram.com

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