The goal for leaders of the state's Department of Rehabilitation Services is clear: They want the 92,000 disabled Oklahomans they serve to function as fully and normally in society as anyone else.
The executive director and chairman of the state board regulating the agency know it's possible. They're both blind but have professional and well-paying jobs.
Steve Shelton, of Edmond, is chairman of the three-member Commission for Rehabilitation Services. His blindness was caused over time through retinitis pigmentosa, which causes the degeneration of photoreceptor cells.
As a member of the board, he helped hire Joe Cordova, who has been a disability leader for 35 years. They direct a state agency with about 1,100 employees and an annual budget of $140 million.
Cordova said he wants to change the mindset of the department's mission.
“It's not enough to focus just on numbers,” said Cordova, just finishing his first month on the job. “We want good, livable jobs for our consumers.”
He said for too long the agency had trained people only to have them go into low-paying, entry-level jobs.
“That really doesn't do much because the consumers still have to have help from the government in the form of relief and food stamps," he said.
Shelton said one of the biggest steps to achieve will be to change how the public at large views those with disabilities.
“One of the challenges is to overcome the misperceptions that the disabled can't really do anything,” Shelton said. “It's not true.”
Shelton, 58, proved that disabled people can flourish given the right training and opportunities. He is a senior computer programmer analyst at Fidelity Information Services. He graduated from East Central University in 1977 with a Bachelor of Science in mathematics and minors in computer science and accounting. The state helped him with tuition during a time when the agency was under the Department of Human Services.
For the last 20 years the DRS has been its own agency. Shelton, wanting to give back and help shape policy, was appointed to the commission in 2007. On July 1 he began his third, three-year term with the board and as chairman.
He knows firsthand how important it is to provide training and help for clients with disabilities. He thinks it's a good investment that pays dividends to the taxpayers.
“When someone with a disability gets a good job they not only get off relief programs but they also start paying taxes,” he said.
Citing a University of Oklahoma study, he said an ex-client's tax return, over 10 years of working, will more than make up for the state's investment.
DRS programs focus on vocational rehabilitation, employment, independent living, residential and outreach education programs and the determination of medical eligibility for disability benefits.
Cordova came to Oklahoma after seven years as a Division of Vocational Rehabilitation administrator in Hawaii.
His first order of business, he said, was to set the occupational bar higher for rehabilitation services staffers and clients.
“It might take more training to get the better jobs,” he said.
Shelton's passion for the job is noted by Kathleen Reed, DRS executive assistant.
“He is very dedicated,” she said. “He doesn't let his vision impairment stop him and he is always up on the issues.”
Shelton and his wife, Barbara, have been married 37 years. Three have three adult sons and two granddaughters. They attend First Presbyterian Church in Edmond.
Cordova and his wife, Maria, have three adult children and five grandchildren.