October 5, 2006
Florida’s vocational rehabilitation program has its best year ever
J.R. Harding tried to walk away from a fistfight during his senior year at Culver High School near Indianapolis. His assailant, however, refused to allow Harding to “do the right thing,” Harding explained from his motorized wheelchair. Harding’s injuries in the assault may have crippled him for life. He finished his senior year in a hospital bed. A promising future seemed to have vanished in a flash of light. But vocational rehabilitation programs in Ohio and Florida restored Harding’s hope and gave him back his future. Now, Harding spends his days returning the favor.
Harding, 40, has since earned a doctorate and works as an external partnership specialist for the Florida Department of Education’s Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) program. He was on hand Wednesday at Tallahassee City Hall to help other VR workers and Mayor John Marks recognize businesses that have consistently hired disabled people during an “Employment Connection Celebration.”
“The first thing someone will ask you is ‘What do you do for a living,'” Harding said in a brief interview. “Disabled people have a difficult time answering that question without help. And gainful employment is the foundation of full participation and equality.”
Businesses in the Big Bend region recognized during the celebration were Tallahassee Community College, Florida Department of Revenue, Hampton Inn and Suites, Florida State Hospital, Denny’s Restaurant of Madison, Wal-Mart, FAMU, the city of Tallahassee, FSU and Publix.
The program just completed its most successful year, having returned 10,796 disabled people to work during the fiscal 2005-2006, said VR Director Bill Palmer.
“That’s a 15 percent improvement over the last fiscal year’s numbers, and from I hear, it’s the best this program has ever done,” said Palmer, who has been in the position for 10 months. “When you have the ‘best year ever,’ the question becomes ‘how do you sustain that?’ So our goal is to continue that success.”
The state Department of Education’s Injured Workers Program, which assists Workers Compensation clients, helped 1,486 people return to work in the fiscal year, as well, Palmer said.
Linda Hartnig, VR supervisor of external communications and partnerships, attributed the program’s banner year to a performance pay incentive program that gave slight pay raises to VR teams around the state that achieved higher goals.
“We’ve got 1,000 employees around the state in VR units,” Hartnig explained. “Of those, 800 work directly with our disabled customers to help them find jobs. About 25 percent of the 800 earned the pay raises for exceptional achievement.”
The VR program did a better job helping private employers learn how to provide accommodations for disabled workers and also reversed a loss of VR counselors who assist the disabled. The program had lost 25 percent of its counselors over the past year and a half, Hartnig said. “We have filled most of those vacancies. The more counselors we have, the more able we are to help disabled people find employment.”
Contact reporter Billy Bruce at (850) 599-2312 or firstname.lastname@example.org.