Charles Sleeper knows firsthand that one federal grant can change lives. Before becoming a counselor for the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma, he was a recipient of the services offered as a result of the “Vocational Rehabilitation Service Projects for American Indians with Disabilities” grant from ED. “This program changed my life by making me see that I could go beyond my disability and be better than anyone who might mock me,” he said.
As a counselor, Sleeper saw many people who wanted to work, but who needed help and direction along with skills training. “Sometimes there is so much against them, Indians with disabilities just give up,” according to Sleeper. In working to address stereotypes and challenges, Sleeper said, “Some say that Indians don’t want to work, but we can see beyond that.”
In Oklahoma, nine tribes received federal Vocational Rehabilitation grants to help target specific needs in their communities. Currently, the community receives $412,000 a year with a 10 percent tribal match to cover 11 counties which are able to serve about 50 tribal members with disabilities. “The program provides assessment, counseling, tuition, college expenses, training and job placement, but the most valuable outcomes are building relationships of trust and instilling a sense of confidence, responsibility and self-sufficiency,” according to Sleeper. “It is part of our cultural tradition to be self sufficient,” he said. “We help people realize that they are in charge of their own destiny; no one else is.”
Through partnerships with other tribes, local colleges and the community, individual plans for employment are developed, and participants work jointly with the counselor until they reach their employment outcome. “Even after that, people come back to check in and let us know how they are doing,” said Sleeper. Drug and alcohol counseling is also provided when needed. “Sometimes people have a fear of success because others have put them down for so long. That’s when communication and trust become so important. It’s not just the physical and material needs we have to address for Indian people; we must address the whole person, as well,” Sleeper said.
Over the years, there have been strong successes. One young man with severe asthma was able to get a Master’s degree and now works as an accountant. “A young woman we worked with was labeled ‘special education’, but went on to have a career in the military,” Sleeper noted. Others have gone on to become educators, truck drivers, cashiers, sales people, manufacturers, and medical workers.
“The highest level of attainment has been that of a person with a disability who attained a Juris Doctorate and is now the attorney for the tribal council,” said Bryan Sykes, director of the American Indian Vocational Rehabilitation Services program. Sykes, who has worked in the field of rehabilitation for over 28 years wrote the grant. He co-wrote the first grant in 1996. He emphasizes the need for federal funding: “If we don’t have the federal funding, our people will suffer in poverty,” he said. “It’s poverty that can breed disability.”
What motivated Sykes initially was working with people who were rated as “mentally incompetent” by a court of law, where he supervised their financial affairs. “They were at a point of no hope, but with this funding and philosophy of vocational rehabilitation, we could change the structure of services and guide them to options. This is often the last option that they have to become self-sufficient,” he said. “We don’t just prepare people for dead-end jobs; we prepare them for careers where they can advance,” said Sykes.
Another measure of success is that younger people come for services. “They realize early that they don’t have to deny their disability; they have options,” Sleeper explained. “Years ago, people just gave up and never realized that there was something they could do. Tribal members see the successes that we’ve had and know they have access to the services.” That’s what keeps Sleeper motivated. “I get lots of satisfaction and happiness from seeing others succeed. People can do more than you think; they just need a chance.”
Helen Littlejohn is Regional Director for Communications and Outreach, Western States