DEED member uses own experiences to help others with disabilities find work

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Local 1102’s Valerie Williams

Local 1102’s Valerie Williams was born to be a counselor. She has spent most of her career, and graduate school studies, learning how to help people succeed.

Williams has been a vocational rehabilitation counselor with the Dept. of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) for four years. “My degree is in social work. I get to use my own personal experiences to help people. I have a disability myself – I am legally blind,” Williams said. 

"I had a vocational rehab counselor when I became blind at 21 and she helped me. I will never forget meeting my first rehab counselor - she really got that piece of what I was going through," Williams added. "When I was first diagnosed, my parents were very worried because unemployment in the blind community is very high at 80 percent."

“I love the community I work in and am able to put my own experiences to use in south Minneapolis. I found my group at vocational rehabilitation services. We put all of our energy into one thing: quality over quantity,” Williams said.

If a Minnesotan has a physical or mental disability that makes it hard to find work or keep a job, he or she may be eligible for vocational counseling, job training and other forms of assistance from DEED’s Vocational Rehabilitation Services. Williams said during an individual’s first meeting they talk about employment interests, what’s available, determine job goals and how to merge a disability with the job. The next step is writing an employment plan.

She said a jobs specialist will meet with the individual weekly and then “the three of us meet every few months to make sure things are going well. Maybe the labor market is flooded now – let’s go to a plan B or C or D.”

“We’re employment nerds – the more challenging, the more I like it, the more determined I become. Perhaps someone wants to be a chef or a prep cook. We work with the individual and with the restaurant,” Williams said. She has placed two prep cooks, one with a learning disability and another with mental illness.

Williams’ work isn’t over once an individual is placed in a job, she wants to ensure things are going well, “For example, let’s say an individual is not meeting deadlines. I meet with his or her supervisor and someone from human resources and we come up with strategies to help them. The goal is to keep people as independent as possible. We work on independence skills because I won’t always be here.”

Williams said the consumers she works with are her favorite part of her job, and is often reminded of what a grad school teacher told the class: Our job is not to build potential because they always had it, instead make them remember that they had potential. 

“When people say they want to become a computer engineer or a veterinarian, I love it because it changes what disabilities look like. You really get to see that change in people’s lives,” Williams said. “The best thing is seeing someone come in who is not feeling confident and is dealing with a lot of challenges with poverty and, once they get a job, they can afford housing and pay for their medications.”