Sunday, June 21, 2009

Switching Sides or How I Learned to Relax and Love My Rehab Counselor

For the twenty years that I lived in New York City, I managed to live ‘outside the system.’ Some part of me was proud that I didn’t avail myself of services, vocational and medical offered specifically to people with disabilities. Not using the system somehow was proof of my unshakable independence. As a Canadian citizen living in the States, I was not always eligible for services and found that I was often turned down services even if I was eligible-- like Para-transit for example. I’d go for my Para-transit interview, ready to answer any and all questions and quickly realized that I would have to lie about my level of functioning—play down my abilities in order to be found eligible. This pissed me off. My interviewers would commended me on my mobility and then NOT give me what I needed to get to work every day.
Years later, now that I’m in NJ things have changed. I realized that if I wanted to get anywhere on my own without a car, Para-transit was not just an option but a necessity. Since the birth of my son, several years ago, like many people with mobility disabilities, I lost a measure of my ability to walk during the pregnancy and have been slowly rebuilding my strength to pre-pregnancy levels. This means that I use a scooter (which I treat like a motorcycle)much more than ever before.
I went in for my New Jersey Para-transit interview with my scooter. I think that in the eyes of my biped interviewer this clearly sent a message that I was disabled person in need of transportation assistance. This time, I didn’t have to lie because most people agree the transit system in NJ sucks. Buses rarely come more than once an hour and, in my area, there are few safe curbs upon which a pwd can make use of the lift at the back of the bus.
For the first time in my life I was quickly granted services and was finally part of a ‘system’ albeit in New Jersey and not New York.
After using the NJ Para-transit system, called AccessLink, I finally had to admit that maybe getting a drivers license was a good idea. This meant that I would like millions of pwd’s, have to use hand controls.
Let me state now that I have always been terrified of driving, convinced that I would ‘spaz out’ behind the wheel, lose control of the car, and kill myself or someone else. Although everyone complains about Access-a-Ride in New York City, the actual city buses work well for pwd’s and with a little practice I could get around pretty efficiently. After all, pedestrians rule in NYC. Few people I knew actually drove or even owned cars.
In New Jersey, EVERYBODY drives. Buses I notice are close to empty much of the time.
In order to learn to drive in an adapted car, I needed to go further into the ‘NJ system’ and go for an evaluation at the Department of Vocational Resources in Newark. I would be assigned a real live Rehab counselor. I couldn’t help but smile at this prospect because as someone who has worked in social services for many years I’m accustomed to being on the other side of the table working with and for pwd’s. Would I look at myself differently being on the receiving end of services? Yep, we with big egos admit to having these ambivalent feelings. Wait, I thought I could turn this eval into an interview opportunity since I’d been looking for a job anyway…
I revamped my resume and dusted off my interview suit.
On the day of the appointment, I followed my assigned rehab counselor, Miss Rose, past a long row of office cubicles and into an office that was empty but for a table and chair. I didn’t take my scooter this time; I decided to walk with my crutches. Miss Rose wore a well-pressed cream colored suit and had the unhurried walk of someone who knew she was a part of a huge bureaucracy and there was, therefore no reason to rush. She smiled easily. Maybe this wasn’t going to be a paperwork horror show after all.
I sat as she examined my file silently for what seemed like forever.
“Katinka…” She pronounced my name slowly and carefully. She turned over my application and seemed to read it with deliberation that was almost painful.
“You have a Master’s degree?” It was more of a statement than a question.
I produced the original piece of sheepskin. She reviewed it wordlessly, and set it aside.
“You’re married?” I produced proof of my husband’s income which I knew would likely knock me out of the running for having any driving lessons paid for by the state.
“You have a child,” she said.
“Yes,” I said, unable to hide the pride in my voice. “He’s about to turn four. He’s healthy and extremely active.” I added that last bit because many bipeds automatically assume my child must be disabled because I am.
She nodded. Slowly.
“Why do you want to learn to drive?”
I explained that even in this rotten economy I’d been searching for work and in NJ unlike NY must jobs required some travel and a valid driver’s license. “Besides, I feel isolated often having to rely on other people to go where I want…”
Miss Rose nodded again.
“I brought my resume,” I said, and put it on the table between us. She started reading and I saw her smile again.
So I told her everything, my work history, my disability my reluctant move to the suburbs.
Miss Rose listened, took notes, smiled, nodded and didn’t say very much. I had to admit it was almost fun switching sides of the table.
At one point, she leaned forward and said,” there’s a bunch of people retiring from this office in a couple of months. Do you want to work here?”
“A state job? I said, “Sign me up!” We both chuckled.
I left the Department of Vocational Resources feeling as if I had gained an ally—which was not what I had expected. I found out a couple of weeks ago, that despite my husband’s income, the state is willing to pay for my driving eval which I’ve already scheduled for late July.
I knew that I had come prepared for my interview with Miss Rose, that I had done my homework, gathered my paperwork and pitched my strengths at her to the best of my ability. This made me wonder about all the pwd’s who may not have the same self-advocacy skills, or whose disabilities may make communication more difficult. Do their rehab counselors welcome them with the same unflappable openness as Miss Rose? How many of us are sitting at home isolated through no fault of our own?
I’m still terrified of driving but that doesn’t mean I won’t give it a shot. And when Miss Rose calls to check in, I can’t help but smile when she says in her unhurried drawl “honey, I think I found the perfect job for you. Go get a pencil, I’ll wait.”

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