a white woman with short brown hair and a white sweater standing against an orange background. She is smiling.

Q & A with Lisa Helma, Manager of Vocational Rehabilitation Services at Shirley Ryan AbilityLab


What is vocational rehabilitation? 

Vocational rehabilitation, or voc rehab as it’s sometimes known, is a discipline that works with individuals with disabilities to help them achieve their vocational goals. Voc rehab services revolve around training, education, employment and job retention.

How did you become interested in vocational rehabilitation?

I feel that the career counseling component of vocational rehabilitation is really critical in helping individuals figure out what they want to do and what their vocational goals are. But I also knew that I wanted to work with individuals with disabilities. So, I combined career counseling and disability services, and that's how I decided to become a vocational rehabilitation counselor. 

Who gets vocational rehabilitation services at Shirley Ryan AbilityLab?

Clinicians who believe that their patient would benefit from vocational rehabilitation services can put an order in the patient’s chart for them to get these services. Over the last fiscal year, we received more than 600 referrals. 

How many people make up the Vocational Rehabilitation Department at Shirley Ryan AbilityLab?

There's me, and then there are three other vocational counselors, and we have a part-time administrative coordinator. Hopefully we’ll be hiring a job placement specialist in the very near future. 

What happens when someone first meets with a staff member in the Vocational Rehabilitation Department?

During our initial assessment, we are looking to learn more about that individual's background. We ask questions based on their medical history, their educational history and their work history. We utilize that information to develop some vocational goals and then develop a plan that will assist the client in achieving those vocational goals. 

What if a client doesn’t have a lot of experience working or hasn’t started working yet? 

For people who are younger or don’t have much experience with working, we do a vocational evaluation to assess that individual's interests, abilities and aptitudes, and we use that information for vocational planning. If someone comes to us with an idea for what they want to do, but they don’t have a lot of experience, we help them figure out how they're going to be successful in that field. That could be a combination of training or volunteer work or entry level employment. If education is necessary in order for a client to achieve their vocational goal, we would refer them up to the Illinois Department of Human Services Division of Rehabilitation Services, which can provide funds for education. Everything we do is on an individual, one-on-one basis. 

What makes vocational rehabilitation at Shirley Ryan AbilityLab special? 

What makes us unique is that we are one of only a handful of hospital-based vocational rehabilitation departments. That means that we’re able to work with patients quite early on to help them achieve their vocational goals. This is really important because a lot of the time, one of the first questions people ask after they’ve had a medical occurrence that brings them through our doors is ‘How am I going to get back to work? How am I going to support myself?’ We provide vocational services to help our clients navigate those next steps very early on. We usually start seeing patients when they start day rehabilitation. So a patient will see their physical therapist or OT or SLP, and then they see us the same day. Shirley Ryan AbilityLab is the only day rehabilitation provider in Illinois that provides vocational rehabilitation services. 

Can you talk a little more about specific vocational rehabilitation services offered by Shirley Ryan AbilityLab?

We have different kinds of clients. For our job retention clients, those who were employed at the time of their medical occurrence, we help them navigate their employer benefits policies, and we look at different opportunities that could potentially be available for them at their workplaces. We work with the client’s medical team to determine what accommodations may be available for our client to complete the essential functions of their job. We then communicate with the client’s employer about accommodations and help facilitate the client’s return to work.

We also work with people who weren’t employed before their medical occurrence, or who are just not able to return to their previous occupation. These clients are often interested in alternative employment. For them, we provide job-seeking skill instruction, so things like completing a resume and a cover letter, and we also offer interview training and mock interviews with our local business partners. Depending on individual needs, we provide job placement assistance, and that could be anything from counseling on how to apply for certain positions independently, all the way up to contacting employers on their behalf to discuss possibilities and facilitating an interview. 

Ultimately, we're trying to empower our clients to own the process and be successful with their job search. 

What is the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab Vocational Services Business Board?

The business board is a group of employers in the Chicago metropolitan area who are committed to hiring individuals with disabilities. We provide training to these businesses about hiring people with disabilities and helping people with disabilities get back to work, and they provide networking opportunities and resources for our patient population. For example, if we have a member on the business team who is hiring for a specific position, and we have a client who would be a good fit for that job, we will reach out to that employer to facilitate that interview. So, it expands the networking opportunities available for our patient population.

For more information about Vocational Rehabilitation services at Shirley Ryan AbilityLab, call 312.238.6810 or email lhelma@sralab.org.