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Rehabilitation Researcher Garners Awards for Teaching and Research

April 22, 2004
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Rehabilitation researcher Rick Roessler has spent his career developing programs to help people with chronic illnesses and disabilities return to or stay in the workplace, and his work has been recognized nationwide twice this year by awards from groups of his peers.

Roessler, University Professor of rehabilitation, human resources and communication disorders, won the Distinguished Career in Rehabilitation Education award from the National Council on Rehabilitation Education and the James F. Garrett Award for a Distinguished Career in Rehabilitation Research from the American Rehabilitation Counseling Association.

Roessler's current line of research has focused on helping people with multiple sclerosis, a chronic debilitating illness that strikes adults, often in the middle of their careers. Although its causes are poorly understood, MS has pervasive effects that result from scar tissue on nerve sheath in the central nervous system that interferes with transmission of neural impulses. This can cause a range of symptoms, from balance and coordination problems to speech and vision loss or short, intermediate, or long term memory disruption.

"Coping with MS is a challenge, not only because of its symptoms but also the psychological aspects," Roessler said. "People with MS don't know from day to day what their symptoms will be like, or how they might change in the future."

In addition to his teaching roles in the rehabilitation master's and doctoral programs, Roessler is the co-director of the National Multiple Sclerosis Employment Project, a research project designed to identify and address the needs in placement and employment support services for adults with MS.

"Employed adults with MS are experiencing many gaps in employment services and supports," Roessler said. "People who have been newly diagnosed with MS often don't know their rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act. They don't know when they should tell their boss or co-workers about their condition. And they don't know how to ask for accommodations, or what to ask for."

It's important to determine the workplace challenges people with MS face, because it can mean the difference between continued employment and leaving the working world for good.

"The more barriers they are encountering, the less satisfied people are with their job," Roessler said. "We need to help people identify barriers and work to find solutions to those concerns."

To that end, Roessler and his colleagues have developed the Work Experience Survey, a structured interview that helps employees with disabilities identify barriers in the workplace. The survey asks questions about performing essential functions, such as standing, bending, lifting, and using short term and long term memory. It addresses job mastery concerns, asking people whether or not they think others feel they are doing their fair share, or where they see themselves in their career in five years. The survey also addresses job satisfaction, including workload, creativity, autonomy and security, and whether or not there is too much or two little of these elements. From this survey, the employee and the rehabilitation counselor can develop a plan by identifying the top three barriers and asking who can help, and what they can do to help, Roessler said.

One woman with MS who had impaired mobility worked on the 21st floor of a building. She worried so much about how she would get out of the building in an emergency that she almost quit her job. Through identifying her concerns and asking questions, it was discovered that the local fire department uses computer software to pinpoint the location of people who might have evacuation issues. She and her supervisor and co-workers also developed an evacuation plan.

"This gave her a lot of comfort she didn't have before," Roessler said, and she stayed in her job.

Another man, a speech teacher at a high school, was diagnosed with MS that affected his standing, balance and coordination and affected his ability to project his voice. He too thought about quitting, but instead accommodation counseling pinpointed a few simple things that could be done to help. Simple and inexpensive accommodations were suggested such as moving his classroom closer to the restroom, having student runners carry materials back and forth from the main office, and placing a microwave and small refrigerator in the classroom so that he didn't have to walk to the cafeteria. Instead of supervising assemblies and climbing bleachers, he could take over study halls.

All he needed for instruction was a high stool and a lapel microphone with an amplifier.

"We should be doing all we can to ensure that people who want to work can stay at work," Roessler said. "I'm always impressed at how a little bit can mean a lot. Many accommodations are not expensive, and they allow the employer to retain qualified personnel like this well-trained, well-loved teacher."

In addition to helping people keep their jobs, Roessler obtained a grant from the Social Security Administration to provide work incentives and benefits planning services for people with disabilities.

"Social Security is there for a purpose. It's there to protect people in the event that they cannot work," Roessler said. However, with advancing medical treatment and improved technology in the workplace, it's also possible that someone who once could not work might be able to return to employment. Only 1/2 to 1 percent of people on disability do return to the workplace, and these programs are designed to help them do so.

People with disabilities who wish to return to the work force may fear the loss of medical insurance and other social services that help them cope with their condition. Roessler's grant, Project A-WIN, administered by Sources for Independent Living Services, is designed to help people examine their options and see if returning to work is feasible.

"It's their decision, not ours," Roessler said. But the program allows people to explore possibilities they might not have thought of before.

In addition to his current projects, Roessler is in the process of updating two of the four textbooks that he has authored or co-authored during his career.

"Those books help me stay current," he said. Some things, like job-seeking skills and helping people with the job-seeking process, remain timeless. Other items, like how researchers explain the impact of disability on people's lives, are continually evolving.

"There is an illness intrusiveness model which has been the focus of extensive empirical research. Evidence documents how the illness and its treatment disrupt life and affect access to life roles," Roessler said. Psychological factors such as sense of personal control and problem-solving ability and environmental factors such as social support also determine how effectively a person with a disability will cope. For example, a study of people with spinal cord injuries showed that people who have better problem-solving skills had a lower incidence of certain kinds of secondary problems. This has led rehabilitation counselors to look at teaching problem-solving skills when the circumstances call for it.

"We talk a lot about helping people with disabilities develop the skills and tools they need to succeed in life," Roessler said. "If you're a counselor, these are things you need to consider."

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