Growing up in the then small town of Naperville, Illinois, Robert Trierweiler was the first in his family to attend college. He had been a solid B student in high school and was good at math but BT, as his friends called him, wasn’t sure what to major in at Western Illinois University in Macomb. He ended up enjoying an intro psychology class, so that’s what he got his degree in. Then he wondered what kind of job that prepared him for.
Trierweiler joined VISTA, the national service program created by President John F. Kennedy to alleviate U.S. poverty, to figure out his next step. He spent a year in Ogden, Utah, working on projects to decrease the dropout rate among high school students. During a camping trip with some at-risk high schoolers, he listened to them talk about their fears and what they thought their lives would be like. He remembers being touched by how much they appreciated his nonjudgmental encouragement. “That’s when I decided I wanted to work with young people on a long-term basis,” he says.
I realized I really liked working with people with disabilities on employment issues, and I just stayed with it.Robert Trierweiler
Trierweiler headed back to Western Illinois University in Macomb for a graduate degree in guidance counseling. But when it came time to do his practicum, the only place with an appropriate opening was a local rehabilitation center. The center housed a sheltered workshop where people with developmental and physical disabilities earned small amounts of money by packing items into containers. “I realized I really liked working with people with disabilities on employment issues, and I just stayed with it,” says Trierweiler, 71. He retired last September after a nearly 28-year career as a Vocational Rehabilitation Counselor at the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab’s Department of Vocational Rehabilitation.
The Americans with Disabilities Act had passed in 1990, requiring that firms with more than 50 employees adjust their workplaces to help people with disabilities return to their old jobs or an equivalent position unless the costs of the changes were prohibitive. Trierweiler spent a portion of his time visiting more than 500 companies where employees who had acquired a disability through injury or illness needed an accommodation to return to work. It was part of his job to help companies figure out how to do that, whether it meant moving a teacher’s classroom to the first floor or providing a stool for an assembly line worker to rest on. “We always saw the employer as a secondary client,” he says. “If I can help an employer better understand what to do, that will help my main client – the person with the disability. We’d bring the information back and share it with the therapist, so they had a better idea of what they were sending someone back to."
I’m still working because it gives me tremendous satisfaction.Robert Trierweiler
Over the years, Trierweiler has seen many improvements in the employment of people with disabilities. Now large companies almost always have human resource specialists who are trained in making ADA-related accommodations, whether it’s moving someone to a part-time schedule or adding restroom grab bars. Many infrastructure changes such as curb cuts and ramps are now routinely incorporated in new construction. Attitudes have changed, too, and an increasing number of companies are open to hiring people with disabilities. But many small- and medium-sized companies still need help figuring things out. “They’re receptive but they’re just not sure what to do,” Trierweiler says. “Sometimes they only need you to point out simple things.”
Trierweiler’s territory covered most of the Chicago area, requiring long commutes downtown and lots of driving in the suburbs. He decided last year it was time to spend more time with family and pursuing his wildlife photography hobby but he hasn’t really stopped working. When he offered to volunteer at the Illinois Spina Bifida Association, they offered him a part-time job as a vocational counselor. He also remains involved in research at the Center for Rehabilitation Outcomes Research at the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab exploring employment barriers for people with disabilities. “I’m still working because it gives me tremendous satisfaction,” Trierweiler says. “And I get to see what it accomplishes.”