The Oklahoma Department of Rehabilitation Services (DRS) is a state-run organization that is dedicated to helping people that have disabilities or health concerns become independent and move into careers that fit their needs.
According to their site, DRS expands opportunities for employment, independent life and economic self-sufficiency by helping Oklahomans with disabilities bridge barriers to success in the workplace, school and at home.
Public Relations Representative Jody Harlan, who has been with the agency for 20 years, described the importance of a program like DRS.
“We say that what we want to do is ‘cool independence with cool job benefits,’” Harlan said. “If you don’t have as much money, you don’t get to make as many choices. People with disabilities want the same things people without disabilities want.”
Harlan explained that DRS helps people who are disabled and currently out of work access the tools they need to support themselves. These tools, she explained, can vary from training or learning a trade, to utilizing computer software and equipment.
“If they have a disability that is a barrier to employment, then we talk about what it’s going to take to reach their career goal. They use the plan like a roadmap to reach the goal and gain employment.”
Harlan explained that DRS employees like to work with people who go into a career that enables them to manage their own expenses to pay for the disability.
“You need a good job, training and assistance to be independent and make your own way,” Harlan said.
Harlan said that right now, these programs have a waiting list for new applicants. Eligible individuals might have to wait to receive service due to a funding issue. She stressed that she did not, however, want that to discourage anyone from applying.
“Since February 2012, we have transferred 2,200 people off of the waiting list,” Harlan said. “More people come to be helped than we have money to help at a time. Once someone’s in the program, they’re not affected by waiting lists.”
During the process, applicants go through a Career Planning Center. They receive evaluations that assist counselors that determine both the client’s occupational interest and skills that will enable the applicants to set realistic career goals.
The next step in the process is to interview with a counselor or Vocational Rehabilitation Specialist.
Heidi Layton, a current Cameron student, is a Vocational Rehabilitation Specialist at DRS. Layton provides individual career advisement and determines what each of her clients’ needs to become a successful, independent part of society. Layton said she got into the field after receiving assistance from the program.
“One of the employers here said ‘You should work for us.’ It sounded good so I applied for it and got it,” Layton said. “I’ve been here ever since and I’m not going anywhere. My heart’s in it.”
Layton explained she understood how embarrassing it can be to ask for help but delineated between DRS and other government-assistance programs.
“It’s not for everybody,” Layton said. “It’s not a free ride. It’s a hand up for people who want to work hard and make themselves and their lives better.”
Layton addressed possible monetary concerns relevant to any government program.
“Everything government [related] needs to be improved but there’s enough good in it to validate its existence,” Layton said. “I think it’s a great opportunity for people who really want to go to work and improve themselves, despite having a disability.”