By Steven Falkner
In 1985, I was in my 6th year of private dental practice in a small town of about 700, in the middle of Cedar County, Iowa, out in the eastern part of our state. It was the beginning of something you may have heard of, the “farm crisis”. It was a stressful time for rural Iowans whose jobs depended on agriculture. It was a time of economic recession, and many of our Iowa farmers found themselves overextended financially, with the result being several farm foreclosures, a slowdown in ag manufacturing, and layoffs in Iowa ag businesses. In my town, small businesses were closing up and down main street such that someone put an ad in the Sun Times saying, “Will the last person leaving town please turn out the lights?” My practice up to that point had been going very well, my debt was eliminated, and finally I was anticipating some real financial growth, and even the ability to expand my practice. But, my business, like many others, had drastically slowed due to the farm crisis, and I was only barely able to meet payroll.
To add to this stress, I was beginning to realize some of the visual disturbances that I had been told to expect from my recent diagnosis of progressive blindness due to retinitis pigmentosa. You know, I had been losing peripheral vision all along, but we are so fearfully and wonderfully made that until the loss became very significant, I just didn’t realize that the blindness was progressing so rapidly. Thankfully, my close-up vision was still very good and adequate to my needs in the clinic setting. However, I had night blindness, and my long-distance vision was slightly affected, and now I was beginning to notice issues with my peripheral vision. I noticed that I was having difficulty finding my way out of a parking lot with the car because though I thought I could see everything, somehow, I just wasn’t getting the whole picture. I was lost in a parking lot and couldn’t figure out how to get out! This is difficult to describe; but a year later, I had to give up my driver’s license due to this, and then I was really limited in my ability to get around, other than by foot. It is a very lonely and frightening feeling to be in a small town out in the middle of farm country, with people depending on me, and my business failing due to the local economy, and I could not see how to change my circumstances due to the implications of this vision loss. I had to get out of town and start a new life, but my practice value was plummeting which means I couldn’t really sell, and I had no idea what I’d do if I did sell. Whenever I tried to look for jobs by calling companies or colleges to see about options, I came up with a goose egg, and I was beginning to become desperate.
When I heard of the Iowa Department for the Blind, I was ecstatic, probably beyond a reasonable measure, because I had the idea they’d be able to lead me out of this “valley of the shadow” that I was in. I called the local office and the receptionist was very pleasant, and that was a great comfort to me because I could tell that I was nearing a crossroad in my life. This situation truly was a very big deal for me! I feared losing my livelihood in short order, being stuck in a small town with no prospects and no guidance on the future. What about my dreams for a wife and family, a nice home, an 8-5 job? To me, this was life and death, and even though that might have seemed like an overreaction, I could see no future at that point. All I could see was my wonderful dental career simply crashing on the rocks, leaving me out in small town America with no source of income.
The Iowa Department for the Blind is one of the two public vocational rehabilitation agencies in Iowa, both arising from the Federal Rehabilitation Act. The Iowa Department for the Blind, of course, works with Iowans who have significant sight disorders, and Iowa Vocational Rehabilitation Services (IVRS) works with Iowans who have other types of disabilities. Both of these agencies provide services to persons with disabilities in order to help them achieve their independent living and vocational goals.
From the Iowa Department for the Blind, I received vocational counseling and assistance for training, instruction in coping skills such as Braille and cane travel, plus the opportunity to learn to use various types of assistive technology. I went back to school and completed my master’s degree in Rehabilitation Counseling in 1988 (yes, I wanted to help others who were faced with the need to change their careers due to a disability). I was then hired by Iowa Vocational Rehabilitation Services as a rehabilitation counselor in Mason City, and here I have been ever since.
It’s a wonderful job that I have, working with people who have disabilities to help them get into (or back into) great jobs. It hasn’t been easy—as my sight has continued to diminish, I have had to learn new coping skills all along the way. At first, I got along with using $1.00 bar magnifiers and strong desk lamps for my paperwork; then later, I had to jump up to stronger, lighted magnifiers. For years I used rolling writer pens (hard point for carbons, but thick black lines). After this came the CCTV magnifier for print material and forms. These days, I need to have someone read print materials to me, and I use Braille a lot. I use a personal talking laptop computer for note taking. I also use a desktop computer that has had a talking program loaded onto it--this was provided as an accommodation by IVRS. Most recently, I am working to master the iPhone’s accessibility features. As you see, we can learn new ways of getting things done!
With my technology, a few accommodations from my employer, and my blind skills training, I am well able to handle my job. I am now in my 32nd year of employment with IVRS; in fact, I was promoted to area office supervisor about 17 years ago, and in January 2018, to the position of chief of field services at IVRS! What a life!!
Here’s the deal: people with significant barriers can be very successful in pursuing not just employment, but truly great careers (like mine). In order to work when you have a disability, I think it takes faith, a good attitude, adequate preparation, and a little help from those who have been down the path. I couldn’t have succeeded without the specialized rehabilitation services I received. Both the Iowa Department for the Blind and IVRS have helped me develop the confidence and skills to pursue a great career and lead a full and satisfying life.
The VR program has been helping people with disabilities in Iowa since 1921, and there have been many thousands of success stories over the years. Since the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) was signed into law in 2014, IVRS has become a proud partner of the Iowa One-Stop System! Now, with our fine One-Stop partners, we can be part of the finest public employment system in the country and can work together to facilitate even better success stories for the citizens who have barriers in our state.
Since the implementation of WIOA, Iowa Vocational Rehabilitation Services has placed special emphasis on improving outreach and services for certain populations which we feel have been underserved in the past, including individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing, those with autism, those with mental illness, and those with developmental disabilities. Employment First is a philosophy that IVRS has been a system leader in since 2011. It is a belief that all individuals can work with the right services and the right supports. Our goal is competitive community integrated employment at a minimum wage or above. We are learning through an approach integrating Customized Employment Strategies and Discovery, that all individuals can have employment success. Historically, many Iowans with the most significant employment barriers have only had sheltered work outcomes to look forward to. We will continue to partner with our Workforce partners and the community rehabilitation programs in creative ways to help make the dream of employment success a true possibility.
The Iowa DD Council has been a key and critical partner in these efforts helping to support pilot projects that are implementing these employment strategies and pushing systemic change for individuals with disabilities. We have amended the policies governing our Iowa Self-Employment program, which can accommodate supported self-employment, or small business endeavors with the needed supports. There are a handful of these small businesses currently operating in Iowa with growing success, and we anticipate more in the future. Also, we have an innovative pilot in several of our counties called the Individual Placement with Supports (IPS) project, and in this we partner with Medicaid, DHS, local community rehabilitation programs, and local mental health centers in order to support rapid placement of individuals with significant mental illness. This IPS movement, as it is called, is demonstrating very encouraging outcomes nationally, and our hope is to see these strategies grow in Iowa, leading to more and better employment outcomes with the correct supports for the population in Iowa with mental illness.
I’m proud to be a part of such a program, and I’m hoping you’re proud that such services are available to Iowans right here in Iowa where we live. Our mission is: We provide expert, individualized services to Iowans with disabilities to achieve their independence through successful employment and economic support.
Steven J. Faulkner is the Bureau Chief of the Rehabilitation Services Bureau at Iowa Vocational Rehabilitation Services in Mason City, Iowa. We thank him for his contribution and sharing his story with our readers!