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When Those Who Should Be Helping People With Disabilities Cause Harm

I first learned about the Department of Vocational Rehabilitation (DVR) in 1996, and was assigned my first DVR counselor that year. My first counselor was wonderfully helpful, and I became a success story for DVR. With help from DVR, I obtained a Bachelor of Arts degree in communication and accepted a job in journalism.

Several years later, I needed assistance from DVR again when I became very ill and lost a full-time job due to said illness. My previous counselor had left to head up disabled student services at an area community college, so I was assigned a new counselor. This was in 2007.

I was struggling with numerous conditions, the most debilitating of which was chronic migraine, even though that description didn’t exist back then. I had migraine headaches about 21 days out of the month. I decided to pursue the start-up of my own business because I knew I couldn’t reliably work a regular shift for any employer, but as months went past, I soon realized I didn’t have enough good hours in any given month to be able to commit to any kind of work. I was struggling just to complete the four to six hours per week I was working as an artist for a local screen printer, and that employer was flexible enough to occasionally allow me to work from home.

My DVR counselor was made aware of this, and I expressed that I needed help to get on Social Security Disability and asked if he could recommend an attorney who could assist with the process. We have one of the top disability attorneys in the state of Wisconsin here, but I didn’t know that at the time, and if my DVR counselor had known it, he kept that knowledge from me. He recommended a law firm that was an hour away and wasn’t known for these types of cases, but agreed to work on retainer. They were unsuccessful in representing me.

It was in preparing for my appeal for disability benefits in 2009 that I obtained records from DVR, laughably described as “medical records.” I expected these records to show I made every effort towards finding work that I could do, given my medical condition, but it was impossible for me to make a living given the limited hours I was actually functional.

That reality was far from what was reported by the DVR counselor. The report was filled with fat-shaming and sexist language. The counselor was trying to claim success on his behalf for my obtaining a part-time job, a job I had before I sought help from DVR. He wrote that he tried to help me with development of a business plan, which was far from the truth. I received very little guidance in developing a business plan. I would bring a plan to my meetings, and he’d read through it, point out a typo and never advance the process further or tell me what else I needed to do.

This man had no interest in helping me, i.e. doing his actual job. I found out later that he is anti-government and opposed to safety net programs like the one he works for. I filed a formal complaint at the state level and asked that they close my case as unsuccessful. I explained that any success I experienced was due to my own efforts, and that the counselor only hindered my progress. I doubt anything was done. This man is still employed by DVR, and is quite public about his disdain for government programs. He is the last person who should be working for such an agency.

In 2017, my chronic migraine returned with a vengeance. I had the local law firm that specializes in disability law assist me with filing for benefits, and was successful in receiving Social Security Disability, something I should have been receiving for the past decade. I spent so many years struggling to make it on income from part-time employment, trying to work from home, experiencing temporary remissions that made me believe I could handle full-time work only to find out I was becoming more ill, more disabled.

There were no back payments for me. While I have been sick for such a long time, I stopped trying for benefits until my health made it completely impossible for me to do anything, and even then I was reluctant to try for benefits because I had since associated seeking help with being abused. I’m fortunate enough to have a supportive partner and loving family.

People like me with chronic illness, who are unquestionably disabled, are extremely vulnerable to abuse. That is why it is all the more important that those working for agencies aimed at helping people with disabilities be carefully screened and that complaints of abuse be taken seriously.

Getty image by Yozayo.