Uniquely able

One man’s mission to prove that being
disabled doesn’t meant being unable
Monday, December 4, 2006 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 5:17 p.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008

If Dave Roberts has learned one thing in his 32-year career in vocational rehabilitation, it is that disability is a normal part of life.

“In a normal part of one’s community you are going to run into someone with disabilities,” Roberts said. “What we are against is the short bus syndrome. The short bus is for people with disabilities, and we are against that because people with disabilities can use the same bus as anyone else.”

As director of the Region 7 Rehabilitation Continuing Education Program, Roberts’ job is to train vocational counselors and others who help people with disabilities live as independently as possible. Headquartered at MU, the Region 7 program serves about 25,000 people employed by rehabilitation and independent living agencies in Missouri, Iowa, Nebraska and Kansas.

“We provide leadership and information regarding current, best practices based upon research and current philosophy,” Roberts said. “We also provide special service projects including supported employment, traumatic brain injury and have provided services for women with HIV and AIDS.”

More than 51 million Americans ­— about 18 percent of the population­­­­­ — have disabilities; more than 32 million have significant “functional” limitations that impede their ability to live independently and work. Helping people overcome those limitations is a $10 billion industry, Roberts said, and “the country’s largest invisible social service system,” aimed at countering the stigma associated with disability. “A particular significance to the university is the fact that over $3 million a year is generated to support vocational rehabilitation,” Roberts said.

Roberts is director of the Rehabilitation Counseling Program in MU’s Department of Educational and Counseling Psychology, which helps train students for a career in vocational rehabilitation. Students help the Region 7 staff with background research and technical assistance by helping various agencies with information on specific topics. The work not only helps the agencies, but provides the students with valuable training and education.

Rehabilitation agencies have been relying more and more on technological innovations to help people with disabilities. The Region 7 program, in particular, has been improving Web site accessibility for the disabled. Scott Standifer, an instructional designer and media specialist for Region 7, developed the concept and currently serves as the main operator and designer. Standifer said the concept goes beyond designing Web sites for the visually impaired. It is also aimed at people with muscle disorders who not be able to physically use a mouse.

One important field that could significantly improve the lives of people with disabilities is universal design, which enables them to access buildings, use sidewalks and have homes that they can live in independently. Some common universal design features are no-step entry-ways, extra-wide doorways for easier wheelchair access and extra floor space.

“For example when they built Mizzou Arena it was originally designed to have stairs leading up to the entrance,” Roberts said. “We worked with the architects to show that an incline in ramp approach is better not just for wheelchairs but anyone.”

He said that for weather purposes it is safer as well since the arena is used for a winter sport; snow and ice can make stairs dangerous for anyone. Elderly people and women with carriages also benefit more from a ramp system than stairs, Roberts said.

In 1999, Roberts and the Region 7 program initiated a project funded by the National Institute on Disability Rehabilitation Research, aimed at women who are HIV-positive. In collaboration with the Helena Hatch Center at Washington University, the project placed more than 300 women in jobs with health benefits. Roberts said the success of the project generated a lot of support.

“Women (with HIV or AIDS) tend to be very isolated and have kids. This isolated community was very cool to work with because nobody had ever paid attention to them before,” Roberts said. “That gave the university a very positive position with the community.”

Yet, Roberts says working in vocational rehabilitation also poses considerable professional and personal challenges. Many people with disabilities, he said, are disheartened by their plight and can’t see the many opportunities that are open to them.

“People don’t really realize that they are not the only person dealing with it,” he said. “People just have a tendency to think that they are alone.”

The fear of huge medical expenses, cuts in government assistance programs and the challenges of finding and keeping can weigh on a person mentally, Roberts said. “It is so complex to try to keep up on details of eligibility and access,” he said. “The thing you realize working in this field is that for some people just (maintaining) support seems to be a full time job.”

Standifer describes Roberts as a dynamic leader, who is well-connected with other program leaders and rehabilitation agencies around the country. “Working for him is a delight and an adventure,” he said.

Roberts said he hopes to continue to conduct research in rehabilitation, and continue influencing people’s attitudes toward those with disabilities.

“It is a topic that everybody thinks they are the only family or person involved with,” he said. “But it is rare that you need to go beyond sisters, brothers or parents that you don’t go beyond some form of disability.”

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