Special Services Department at Eastern New Mexico University-Roswell, Providing Occupational Skills & Training to Students with Disabilities

Marla Wittkopf is the vocational evaluator with the Special Services Department at Eastern New Mexico University-Roswell (ENMU-R) in the state's southeastern area. Marla has been with ENMU-R for seven years and is a tenured faculty member at the institution. The Special Services Department is part of the Developmental Studies Division, and ENMU-R is a branch of ENMU-Portales. This past academic year, Marla tested 115 students, most of whom subsequently enrolled in the Special Services Occupational Training Program.

The mission of Special Services is to provide occupational and social skills training for  students with disabilities who come from across the United States. Although the program can accommodate students without disabilities, the great majority of them have various disabilities. Many have learning disabilities, and throughout their lives they've been constantly told about all the things they can't do.  "It's neat to see their reactions when we help them realize all the things they can do," said Marla.

The program offers students vocational evaluations, counseling, and training within a work setting of their choice in the Roswell community. If program graduates decide to remain in the Roswell area, Special Services staff are often instrumental in aiding them in finding  employment in their chosen occupations.

The Special Services program is unique in the country in that Special Services students live in dormitories on campus, just as students without disabilities do. "They get the real college experience that way, and it also challenges them to learn important new skills," said Marla. "Their days are broken up into two parts, classroom work in the afternoons, and practicum job site training in the mornings. Living away from home in a dorm setting is a big, big change for most of them, and they take classes to help them adjust to living on their own. They take such courses as independent living, conflict resolution, and adaptive physical education."

At graduation, students are awarded certificates of completion that list all of the work skills they have mastered--at least 75% of the job's specified skills. Seventy percent of those who begin the program graduate, and about 75% of the graduates are successfully placed in jobs after they complete the program. "And often the three semester program builds their self-confidence to the point that they want to continue their formal education," said Marla. "It serves as a springboard for students who want and are able to earn their Associate's degree."

Marla conducts the evaluations using Valpar's Pro3000 and work samples. "The unit's had Valpar equipment for about eleven or twelve years now, and we've added three or four new work samples since I started. I've had all the Valpar training with Chris (Boschert, Valpar's long-time trainer). She's great," said Marla.

"I really love the Valpar approach; it's very comprehensive, and the information you get is very thorough, very clear. The students' skills and interests are tied to the requirements and other characteristics of occupations, and they can see firsthand how their own characteristics match up to those of the occupations they want to explore. Sometimes the wisdom of their occupational preferences is confirmed by the evaluation, and sometimes it isn't."

Many of the students enter the program with specific occupational goals in mind, and it's often the case that their goals are unrealistically low or unrealistically high. "It's not unusual for them to come in saying they want to be physicians or lawyers. Pro3000 and the work samples help them see very clearly where their abilities are compared to the occupational requirements – either way – and that makes everybody else's job easier, too. I particularly like the color-coded qualifications profiles the reports have because they draw the eye straight to areas of mismatch."

"I also like the fact that Valpar combines cognitive testing with the hands-on, physical exercises," Marla said. "It's often true that students who don't do so well on (Pro3000's) COMPASS do much better with the work samples. And I often see students go out and perform very well in jobs no one thought they could possibly do."

"It's very common for young people to come in with no idea at all of what their abilities are," said Marla. "We had a young man come in at the urging of his parents. He was skeptical at first, but admitted that he had no idea what sort of career he wanted. When he saw all of the many work-related abilities he'd demonstrated in the evaluation, as well as some of the numerous occupations he could succeed in, he was both surprised and very happy."

"Many of our students come in having been beaten down all their lives, people always telling them all about what they can't do. Of course they're discouraged," Marla said. "I stress to them that everybody has their own, personal ways of doing things, and we all have areas of strengths. There's no one 'right way' of doing things. We help students discover what they can do. We also provide assistive devices and adaptive procedures  (accommodations) where needed. We view those as the equivalents of the reasonable accommodations employers are required to provide disabled workers under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Valpar helps me show students where their abilities lie, not their disabilities, and then we tie-in their abilities to the actual requirements of the jobs they want to pursue."

Marla described what happened with a student whose desire to go into auto -body repair had been confirmed by his evaluation results: "His abilities and interests were completely in line with auto-body repair, and he already had a good sense of that. I asked him if there were any other occupations he'd thought about, and he said that, yes, he'd always thought he might like being an attorney. So we brought up the occupation in Pro3000's occupational databases and compared his profile with that of attorney. It quickly became apparent that his abilities and interests did not match the occupation at all. He was pleased to find that out now because he'd never need to worry in the future that maybe he'd missed out on something he should have done; being a lawyer simply wasn't realistic for him."

Marla's evaluations also help students home-in on the particular occupational specialties existing within the more general occupational field. "We had a young lady who knew she wanted to go into engineering, and she had the aptitudes for it, but she didn't know enough about the various engineering specialty areas. We brought up all the engineering specialties, and she was delighted to have all the information at hand."

Marla told of an unusual case in which a woman who had already been working for years as a bank teller came in for an evaluation. "She didn't know why exactly, but she'd always just simply hated her job. We did the evaluation, and when we went over the results, she immediately saw what it was about bank telling that made the job so unpalatable. I don't know whether she quit her teller job or not, but she was happy just to know what was bugging her."

"I like Valpar because it's so comprehensive, and it's criterion-referenced to thousands of real jobs. Students come out of here with a clear sense of what they can do and what they want to do. And then we help them do it."

Marla is originally from Algona, Iowa, in the north-central part of the state. She graduated from the University of Northern Iowa with a Bachelor's in Education. She then taught physical education for about six years, two of those years in Australia.  While teaching in a small town in rural Iowa after returning from Australia, Marla suffered a severe back injury and had to undergo multiple surgical procedures as a result. During her rehabilitation, she became so intrigued with the rehabilitation process that she decided to get her graduate degree in the field. She entered the Master's degree program at Drake University in Counseling and Personnel, with a specialty in "Job Placement for the Handicapped." After graduating, she went on to earn her CRC (Certified Rehabilitation Counselor), CDMS (Certified Disability Management Specialist), and CCM (Certified Case Manager) credentials. Marla moved to Florida where she worked for a number of years, first in a pain clinic, and then in the private rehabilitation sector. About ten years ago, she moved to New Mexico to take a position with the state at the New Mexico Rehabilitation Center in Roswell as a vocational counselor until her move to ENMU-R.

Marla also has a small sideline business. "I discovered I had a talent for wood carving." She's been carving all sorts of items and designs in wood for about ten years, and she displays and sells them from her home. "I use all kinds of woods that I get from all over the continent, depending on what I'm making. I recently had knee surgery and needed a cane for a while to get around." She carved herself an intricately designed cane. "My doctor was deeply impressed."

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