Pamela Capraro and her husband were trying to find better care for their nine-year-old daughter in the late 1980s when they brought her to the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago (RIC) for an appointment. Pediatrician Deborah Gaebler, M.D., did an examination and recommended some drugs to reduce their daughter’s cerebral palsy-related spasms. Then Gaebler talked with them about how their daughter was doing overall and what she wanted to be able to do. That moment turned out to be life-changing for the whole family. “When we came out, I said to my husband, ‘I need to work here.’ This is the first place we ever brought her where it was okay for her to be who she is,’” Capraro recalls. “It was very powerful.”
It didn’t happen for more than a decade but Capraro achieved her goal. She graduated from college and finished a master’s degree in rehabilitation psychology from the Illinois Institute of Technology in 2001. “It took me two and a half years rather than three,” she says. “I was in a hurry. I didn’t have time to fool around.” After an internship at RIC, she was offered a position as a rehabilitation counselor working with people who had experienced an injury or illness and needed help returning to work or finding a job.
...I said to my husband, ‘I need to work here.’ [Shirley Ryan AbilityLab] is the first place we ever brought [my daughter] where it was okay for her to be who she is. It was very powerful.Pamela Capraro, Vocational Rehabilitation Counselor
Capraro loved the work. Her job involved administering vocational tests and one-on-one counseling with clients. She also negotiated with employers about accommodations that would allow an employee to return to work. Sometimes that meant a worker with a physically demanding job was moved to a desk job, or a teacher’s classroom was relocated to the first floor. Sometimes it involved figuring out a part-time or flexible schedule.
“We call ourselves instillers of hope. You don’t want to give false hope to people but you want to help them believe it can happen,” she says. “The client who has been with us the longest is now working at Chicago’s 311 center. He answers calls and directs people to the proper department. We worked with him for 17 years. That represents our commitment—we will keep working with people as long as they want to work with us.”
In 2009, Capraro was promoted to Manager of Vocational Rehabilitation Services at RIC, which is now known as the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab. That meant less day-to-day interaction with clients, which she missed, but it allowed her to use her contacts and deep experience to keep the department on track when the Great Recession was in full force. It was a terrible time for all job seekers but it was particularly harsh for people with disabilities. Still, the economy slowly recovered and so did the employment opportunities for the department’s clients. Thanks to changes in the U.S. educational system, young people with disabilities are better educated and prepared for the job market than ever, she notes.
We call ourselves instillers of hope. You don’t want to give false hope to people but you want to help them believe it can happen.Pamela Capraro
Now after nearly 20 years of helping other people figure out their next phase in life, Capraro is doing the same for herself. She retired in late June from vocational services and segued to a half-time research position at the Center for Rehabilitation Outcomes Research where she is involved in two projects. Capraro also is volunteering with a GED program at the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab that she started three years ago, helping young people with spinal cord injuries earn their high school degrees. In addition, she is volunteering at Misericordia, a nonprofit community for people with developmental or physical disabilities where her 41-year-old daughter now lives. “She is the driving force behind everything I’ve done,” Capraro says. “She is a wonderful young woman.”