Wednesday, December 30, 2009

New federal voc rehab director talks about her goals

From The News Tribune in Tacoma, Wash.:

Lynnae Ruttledge (pictured), leader of Washington state's Division of Vocational Rehabilitation, is headed to a new job running the $4 billion federal "voc-rehab" program for the Obama administration.

Ruttledge hopes to start Jan. 4 in Washington, D.C., and says she wants to improve the federal program like she is credited with doing for Washington’s after she arrived in Olympia four years ago.

“At the federal level I want to be a part of the economic recovery of the country. I want people with disabilities to be identified as part of the solution and not a part of the problem,’’ Ruttledge, 60, said from her Lacey office this week.

President Barack Obama’s staffers recruited her from Olympia, just as the state Social and Health Services secretary at the time, Robin Arnold-Williams, had recruited her from Oregon. Ruttledge is to serve as commissioner in the Rehabilitative Services Administration, inside the U.S. Department of Education.

In its announcement of her nomination, Obama’s office noted that she worked for 25 years in vocational rehabilitation in Oregon before coming to Washington and that her public service career began in Michigan as a classroom teacher who had herself received vocational rehabilitation aid.

DSHS hasn’t said who will take Ruttledge’s place on an interim basis, and a national search is expected for a permanent replacement. Gov. Chris Gregoire praised Ruttledge’s work earlier this year before the U.S. Senate confirmed the appointment.

“Individuals with disabilities in Washington have had their lives improved thanks to Lynnae’s work. Under Lynnae’s leadership, DVR was able to reduce the waiting list for services from 14,000 to zero, and now provides timely services to Washingtonians with disabilities seeking vocational rehabilitation services,” Gregoire said. Gregoire also gave her the Governor’s Award for Leadership in Management in 2007.

Ruttledge said it took the agency 18 months to erase its backlog, starting with “a real clear vision that we could eliminate our waiting list. When I came in, people had given up hope.’’

Ruttledge said she tried to change the relationship between the agency, clients and vocational professionals. She transferred some jobs from contracted providers to agency staffers, cut spending on contracts and looked for ways “to engage with people with disabilities” and to make sure they wanted to go to work.

An idea from staffers that was put it into practice is now known as WorkStrides. “It’s a way of bringing people with disabilities together with our staff to identify their strengths and to get them focused on what they can do. Through that, it’s a career exploration program. It allowed people with disabilities to identify ways they can be successful. This was really new. We hadn’t done this before,’’ Ruttledge said. “Our staff are really talented people. They just needed new ways to use the talent and skill they had.’’

The agency also created a “Say Hey, Olympia,” program, giving people with disabilities, employers, community partners and leaders a chance to meet quarterly and celebrate the hiring of people with disabilities. That program changed relationships and the strategy has been applied to communities in Seattle, Everett, Spokane and Tacoma, Ruttledge said.

Ruttledge said companies like Safeway have a strong corporate commitment to hiring people with disabilities, and so do state agencies including the departments of Social and Health Services, Ecology and Health. Disabilities range from a person recovering from cancer to a person with epilepsy or a spinal cord injury, a developmental disability, or a veteran’s combat injury.

The federal program, which provides money for rehabilitation services, served about 984,000 disabled people in federal fiscal year 2008. A common misperception is that disabled people “require benefits rather than they are an asset’’ to employers, Ruttledge said.

Jim Larson, president and CEO for the Morningside agency that helps developmentally disabled people in the workplace, said Ruttledge’s work to end the case backlog made a big difference for disabled people looking for work. He also said it helps that someone who has a disability, like Ruttledge, is running the agency.

Ruttledge was born with a partial facial paralysis, which left her legally blind in one eye. The federal and state governments paid for books and tuition to help her earn a bachelor’s degree, which got her foot in the door of employment, Ruttledge said.

But Larson said, “the timing is terrible” on the appointment, because the state loses a seasoned leader at a time of a budget crisis.

“I hope someone who is an interim (director) can be a good leader for them and help them through the next legislative session. There are holes in their budget and they have it patched for awhile,” Larson said, noting that the state gets a $4 federal match for every $1 in state funds in voc-rehab. “But it’s not going to last forever.’’