Donzel Shepherd's call to DRO leads to more transparency for all Ohioans with disabilities seeking job services #AdvocacyMatters
December 15, 2017 / #AdvocacyMatters
The Shepherd team: DRO attorney Barb Corner and her service dog, Maybelle, DRO client and Board member Donzel Shepherd and DRO attorney William Puckett
Donzel Shepherd wants to help people get back to work, and he wants to do that in the underserved neighborhoods in his hometown of Cleveland.
"I want to go into the community centers, where people don't have access to these services," he explains. "No one else goes there. "
His hope is to help individuals who receive Supplemental Security Income, Social Security Disability Insurance, Medicaid and Medicare, and veterans' benefits understand how to navigate those systems and take advantage of work incentive programs that may be available to them. Getting the training and education necessary to provide such services takes time - in Shepherd's case, about a year and a half, as he worked with Opportunities for Ohioans with Disabilities, which is the agency that oversees job-related services and training in Ohio.
"After I took my initial assessments with OOD to determine my career strengths, my counselor told me they thought I was a good candidate to own my own business, and I agreed with that," he remembers. "They invested a lot in me."
OOD had Shepherd take advantage of the Work Incentives Planning and Utilization online certification program through the Yang-Tan Institute on Employment and Disability at Cornell University. The agency also helped him set up a website and develop a business plan, which included a needed modification of his accessible van and professional liability insurance and was approved by OOD.
But everything changed when he was assigned a new OOD counselor. She informed him that both the van modification and the insurance costs were no longer going to be covered, even though they had been approved in his business plan. In frustration, he requested a new counselor, but that request was denied. OOD didn't give him any information in writing about his right to appeal either decision. Shepherd decided it was time to call Disability Rights Ohio.
"How do you take an individual and spend thousands of dollars to get to an end point, only to scrap that plan when you bring in a new counselor?" he asks. "OOD is not supposed to delay an opportunity for people with disabilities. It's supposed to move forward with opportunities to help people achieve their goals."
To represent Shepherd, DRO stepped in to help under its responsibilities as Ohio's Client Assistance Program (CAP). The CAP is a federally mandated program that advocates for and protects the rights of individuals with disabilities who are applying for or receiving rehabilitation services from OOD and the Independent Living Centers throughout Ohio.
The initial informal hearing DRO requested was unsuccessful, so DRO appealed to a formal hearing. There, Shepherd testified that he hadn't received his appeal rights in writing after OOD had refused to move forward with portions of his business plan and denied his request for a new counselor.
"Throughout the process, OOD repeatedly said that decisions about granting a new counselor can never be appealed," says William Puckett, one of the DRO attorneys who represented Shepherd. "But actually, under certain circumstances, it's possible that it can be appealed. More troubling, testimony and evidence showed that Donzel did not get his written appeal rights as required by federal law. So we filed a lawsuit in federal court to challenge what we'd heard in the hearings."
In settlement negotiations following mediation, OOD agreed to modify its appeals policy to make it clear that people must be given their appeal rights in writing or a requested accessible format when they apply for services, when they are assigned to a category in the Order of Selection, when an Individualized Plan for Employment is developed, and whenever services are reduced, suspended, or terminated. They will also provide training for both OOD and contract staff and will specify that counselor change decisions can, in fact, be appealed if it affects the provision of vocational rehabilitation services.
OOD also agreed to reopen Shepherd's case and help him move forward as quickly as possible. He has been assigned a new counselor and is working with her to reach his long-term employment goals.
Shepherd is grateful to have DRO on his side and hopes everyone who receives services from OOD will benefit from the policy changes and potentially prevent a drawn-out legal fight.
"The disability community should know their rights, and now hopefully OOD will be more transparent," he says. "DRO is the most powerful advocate anyone can have to advocate for your rights under the law. That's what they're here for: to make sure things go according to the law."