Deb Prahl worked as a registered nurse in Milwaukee until a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis shattered her life in 1980. Almost worse than the disease, which eventually left her a quadriplegic, was Deb's despair at feeling unable to contribute. Joe Quaintance, supported by a federal grant, is using the latest technology to allow Prahl to become a co-instructor in the certified nursing assistant program at Manor Care, the Appleton nursing home where.
Deb knows she has a future and it means the world to her. "I kept up my license all these years because this little voice inside said don't lose it," she said. "Now I know why. I have a reason for existing. This whole thing has been such a blessing. I didn't know before what God had in mind for me. This is it."
The following article appeard in the Post Crescent on 10/22/2000.
Company removes barriers to employment for disabled people
By Kathy Walsh Nufer Post-Crescent staff writer
Deb Prahl worked as a registered nurse in Milwaukee until a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis shattered her life in 1980.
Almost worse than the disease, which eventually left her a quadriplegic, was the despair of being unable to contribute.
Or so the New London native thought, until Joe Quaintance found her.
Quaintance is president of Todd Steven & Associates, an Oshkosh firm that fosters independence for people with disabilities by clearing away job barriers and supporting them in the community.
"If people with disabilities want to work, we figure out how to make it happen," Quaintance said.
Quaintance had written ManorCare, the Appleton nursing home where Prahl has lived for two years, as part of an area sweep for prospective clients with physical disabilities.
Prahl was an ideal candidate.
While many around her doubted there was anything she could do, Quaintance knew better.
With a federal grant, he is using the latest technology to make Prahl, who also suffers from rheumatoid arthritis, employable.
A computer, scanner, printer, and voice-activated software have been ordered and Prahl is about to become a co-instructor in Manor Care's certified nursing assistant program.
Suddenly she has a future, and it means the world to her.
"I kept up my license all these years because this little voice inside said don't lose it," she said. "Now I know why. I have a reason for existing. This whole thing has been such a blessing. I didn't know before what God had in mind for me. This is it."
Quaintance never says never.
Whether it means sawing the legs off an office desk to accommodate a disability, or hooking someone up with the right resources to find a job, he believes there is always a way.
Quaintance first used this philosophy with his own son, for whom his company is named.
Today, at age 31, his son works two jobs in Oshkosh and Appleton for Manpower.
"My son cannot walk, or talk, or feed himself, but he has never set foot in a sheltered workshop," Quaintance said.
Quaintance figures he has worked with more than 100 people with disabilities in the past nine years, but he knows there are many more out there who could use an assist.
A member of the Social Security Administration national advisory board, he is working with the agency on a forum this Thursday to educate people with disabilities about job opportunities and incentives.
Many disabled people are afraid of losing Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits, said Christine Livernash, operations supervisor for Appleton's Social Security Administration office.
"We're thinking that less than 20 percent of people with disabilities who could work are taking advantage of the incentives," Livernash said.
They are needed in the workforce, however.
"In today's business climate, in which employers face challenges in finding applicants for vacant jobs, disabled persons are an untapped resource," Livernash said.
Gerry Waller, who has severe cerebral palsy and uses a communication board to speak, was frustrated when he came to Quaintance.
He had lived in a nursing home for much of his life and worked in a sheltered workshop earning 24 cents an hour.
He knew he could do more. So did Quaintance.
Spasms require that Waller's arms and legs be strapped to his wheelchair, but he has control of his head, Quaintance said. He honed in on that strength.
As visitors watched one afternoon last week, Tim Boyd, Gerry Waller's vocational trainer, fed calendar covers into a machine and Waller used the back of his head to press a large green button hooked up to the switch that activates the machine.
Waller, who now lives in his own home with support, has been working at Binding Edge for four years and is everything an employer would want in a good employee -- he's punctual, reliable, dedicated.
President Steve Penkala was skeptical when Quaintance first approached him.
"I had lots of questions," Penkala said. "Do we have to adapt our building? Do we need people experienced in the medical field? In the end it was pretty seamless. It worked great."
"All it took was a switch, a little bit of cooperation from the employer and not believing the experts when they said it wouldn't work," Quaintance said. "Gerry proved a lot of people wrong."
Quaintance, who works with local counties and the state Department of Vocational Rehabilitation, as well as a variety of other agencies, said people who come to him are usually desperate.
"Most of the people we serve now have been fired or expelled from other programs." Quaintance said. "We're kind of a last resort."
It's an uphill battle, he said of his work, with the biggest problem being employers' misconceptions that hiring someone with disabilities will mean costly accommodations, and increase their workers compensation insurance or liability exposure.
Usually, the adaptation needed is simple, and costs less than $50. On the flip side, the challenge in dealing with people with disabilities is that often, they and their support groups have either given up, are overwhelmed or don't know help is available.
"What they need to know is that when people are told they can't work and should stay at home and try to live on Social Security, that doesn't do much for your self-esteem." he said.
Social security has a number of incentives which allow people to work and continue receiving their benefits." Livernash said.
"In fact supplementing benefits with work is always to a disabled person's advantage. Rather than relying on their monthly benefit to pay the bills, the satisfaction of work and the extra income that the work provides results in greater monthly income and a higher standard of living."
Quaintance, who thinks professionals who work with the disabled have to become more creative in making them employable, gets immense satisfaction from success stories like Waller, Buettner and Prahl.
"There are more goose bumps in this job than there is pay," he said "and Prahl is just the latest example.
"If we hadn't met her three months ago, you'd still see her going up and down the hallways of the nursing home with not future."
Prahl, who can't wait to get on the Internet and is already thinking about writing the Manor Care newsletter and starting a chat room for MS patients, is thrilled about the windows that are opening up for her.
Waller has reached his goal of full-time employment and saves the money he makes for trips to places such as Disney World.
"He's a very valued employee and Binding Edge thinks of him as their employee." said Julie Quick, Goodwill vocational support services coordinator. "Now they're offering him a week's vacation."
Waller is such a solid worker that Binding Edge has contracted with Goodwill for several clients.
One is Brad Buettner, who works on a boxfolding team and said this job is "much better and less stressful" than his last one at a laundry.
Brad, who has a cognitive disability, is proof that there is no such thing anymore as "job Placement" for the disabled." Quaintance said. "They can choose."