Target Three Special Report: A Mile in Their Shoes

In October, several Texoma organizations including the Department of Rehabilitative Services and Work Services Corporation participated in a program known as PROMOTE-which stands for Promoting Real Opportunities Made Obtainable Through Employment.

The idea behind the project was to give able-bodied people a disability for a day, then see how they could still accomplish their work.Through PROMOTE the organizers hope to prove disabled people can be valuable employees if given the chance.

The following is what KFDX 3 Reporter Ryan Robertson discovered:

Everyday when you go to work you might not realize how much of your daily routine you take for granted. Simple things like getting in a car, going up a flight of stairs, reading an e-mail, and even answering a phone call are all seemingly simple tasks. But for people with a disability those tasks can be quite the challenge.

"I have Macular Degeneration, which I'm finding out means I can't see anything out of the center of my eye," says Tim Chase of the Chamber of Commerce. As part of national disability employment awareness month and a program called PROMOTE, several professionals in Wichita Falls were given a disability for a day. In addition to Tim Chase with the Chamber of Commerce being partially blinded, Justice of the Peace Janice Sons simulated schizophrenia by listening to random voices on an I-pod.

"Having these in your ear, it's exhausting. And when you're trying to do some thinking, you're kind of confused. You don't have good clear thoughts as you're trying to make some decisions, and it's extremely distracting," observed Sons. Tim Chase and Judge Sons weren't the only ones participating in PROMOTE.

I was paralyzed from the waist down. I discovered the simplest things can be a struggle. Not only was getting into a car a challenge, but navigating narrow hallways, crossing the street, even getting in and out of some buildings were no longer routine. But while my disability was obvious, many are not. Judge sons says her schizophrenia is something most people might never know about. "I hear things in my head, you're not aware of it, I may act a little stranger, do things a little more unusual, and sometimes people make fun of people with mental disabilities when they would not do so with people in a wheelchair."

But despite the disabilities, Tim Chase, Judge Sons, and I were all able to get our jobs done. And that's the idea behind the PROMOTE program-to show even though someone may be disabled, they can still work. Chris de la Garza is an employment specialist at Work Services Corporation, a business which employs hundreds of people with a wide array of disabilities. "It's just a general, community wide impression that somebody with a disability can't do it. They're not up to the same standard, when actually they are, and you've got a more dependable loyal employee, because they do know how difficult it is to get a job and when they do get a job they're more likely to keep it because they know how hard it would be to get another one," says de la Garza.

At the Work Services work center, dozens of disabled people report to work everyday. In this warehouse these workers are making paper clips, thousands of them every day. In fact they supply the entire federal government with all the paper clips they need. But this warehouse isn't the only place where someone with a disability can find a job in Wichita Falls.

Mark Towne, Work Center Director mentioned, "If we don't have something here within our operations, we'll go into the outside public and try to find work for them out there. We'll send people out there to train them on the job so we give them the best opportunity to stay gainfully employed."

Beyond factory or labor work, officials say people with disabilities can also find employment in professional fields as well. Doctor John Freese was diagnosed with schizophrenia almost 4 decades ago, but he didn't let that hold him back. He recently visited Wichita Falls to promote the rights of the disabled.

"Exact to the month 12 years after they put me away as insane and told me I'd be cared for by the state hospital system the rest of my life, I was promoted to be the Director of Psychology at their largest state hospital." In addition to teaching at Neo-Med Medical School in north-east Ohio, Doctor Freese also travels the U.S. advocating the hiring of disabled individuals. It's the type of success story officials in Wichita Falls hope others pay attention to.

While no one is saying that dealing with a disability is easy, what PROMOTE is trying to do is educate people that it can be done. Which is a good thing to keep in mind because we're all just one accident, one illness away from being disabled ourselves. "It doesn't change your desire to work, it doesn't change what you know or what you can do. It just changes how you're going to get it done," de la Garza said.

And to help those with disabilities get it done, organizations like the Texas Department of Rehabilitative Services has several federally funded programs to assist employers put disabled employees to work. Vocational Rehabilitation Counselor Melissa Yip-Santallana says, "It could be little to no cost at all. We can provide assistive devices, we can provide education. It's endless the possibilities, if someone is just willing to perceive it a little bit different and be willing to make some small adjustments." Some small adjustments which could make a big difference in a disabled person's life.

While covering this story, one of the biggest things I noticed while in the wheelchair was just how people perceived me. Some would go out of their way to help, holding a door open and helping me up a steep ramp. But many would go out of their way to avoid me. The experts I spoke with say that reaction is a tendency of some to ignore people with disabilities simply because they're different. And it's that type of attitude which PROMOTE is trying to wipe out.

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