Frances Fowler Robinson – Class of 1980
Regional Specialist for Employment Services, NC Department of Health and Human Services/NC Division of Vocational Rehabilitation – Western Regional Office, Morganton

The Division of Vocational Rehabilitation Services (DVRS) helps individuals with disABILITIES achieve their goals for employment and independence. If a person has a disability that prevents him or her from achieving career success or independence in the community of choice, DVRS can connect the person to services and resources to help meet individual goals.

Since 2011, Frances Fowler Robinson has served as the Regional Specialist for Employment Services for the Western Regional Office of the North Carolina Division of Vocational Rehabilitation, headquartered in Morganton. She serves the needs of individuals in 34 counties in the western region, which includes Cherokee County in the far west all the way to Stanly and Union Counties in the east.

Her duties are many and varied. “They include training both newly hired and “seasoned” Business Relations Representatives (BRRs),” explains Frances. “These representatives establish and build partnerships with employers and provide job placement support to individuals with disABILITIES seeking employment after they have met with a VR counselor to determine eligibility.

“Training and consultation is my role, not supervision. I am responsible for preparing training and resource manuals for our 26 BRRs; then I plan and hold quarterly meetings to facilitate that training. I partner with the 10 Unit Managers in our region, my two Counterparts in the central and eastern regions, along with our state-wide Business Engagement Specialist and my supervisor (our Regional Director) to ensure the BRRs are receiving the training and support they need to properly serve employers and job seekers. I also provide training at monthly staff meetings as requested by the Unit Managers.

“I advocate for the BRRs service delivery needs (value added services that benefit employers, job seekers, and community partners) with our state office leadership, participate in numerous Train the Trainer sessions and train the BRRs in the same. My training duties also extend to various annual workforce conferences which are attended by NC Works, Workforce Development Boards, Division of Services for the Blind, etc.

“I also provide disABILITY Awareness Training free of charge for employers, community partners (e.g., NC Works, etc.), VR Staff/DHHS Staff, Public Safety, personnel employed by NC school systems K - 12, Childcare Center Staff, and faith based entities. This training is offered to any entity interested in learning how to successfully communicate and work with persons with disABILITIES. It includes sensitivity training to enhance communication in any setting, not only employment settings.

“In addition, I reach out to employers and community partners to learn about their needs. They may include human capital, training, retention, accommodation, assistive technology, etc. I also plan and hold special events such as the National disABILITY Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM) every October. I participate in planning and working job fairs and connect VR Evaluators, Assistive Technology Specialists, and VR Engineers with employers to offer services, {e.g., accommodations, assistive technology, job analysis, job descriptions at the employer’s request, etc.). My duties also include creating presentations, including PowerPoints, for internal and external training; educating BRRs and other staff as needed regarding policy changes; engaging with state office staff to offer input for needs in the field; assisting with training BRRs when new caseload management systems are implemented; and researching companies across the state to assist my counterparts and the BRRs with developing and strengthening new partnerships

“I also teach Basic American Sign Language (ASL) classes for employers at their request, primarily so they can communicate with customers as well as new hires who use ASL as their primary mode of communication.”

Frances’s education and training as well as her previous jobs were excellent preparation for the many duties she fulfills today. “Numerous people have had a hand in shaping and molding me regarding my career. While in high school at East Burke, I took a Manual Communications class taught by Cathy Berry. She was an excellent teacher who encouraged me to continue. My senior year I took Advanced Manual Communications with Mrs. Corbin and became even more interested in working in a position where I could learn more about ASL and Deaf Culture.

“One of the highlights of my time at East Burke was being a member of the Marching and Concert Bands. Kathryn Siphers was an incredible teacher. She taught us about taking pride in our performance, respecting ourselves and others, and emphasized the importance of personal growth. Barbara Temple, who was the Health Occupations instructor, taught us about being responsible and remembering to take care of others and ourselves. She exhibited and taught patience and grace. Phyllis Garrison, Sherron Prewitt, Elsie Whisenant, Lynda Massengill, and Roy ‘Bud’ Sweezy allowed us to have fun as we learned, were patient, encouraging, and strong examples of professionalism. I struggled in Math and English but these teachers made the struggle less difficult and helped me to realize I could make it through the challenges I faced. Mr. Sweezy just had a great sense of humor and gave his students a desire to learn about other languages and cultures.

“I was a ‘late bloomer’ regarding my college education. In 1989 I started taking classes at Western PIedmont Community College majoring in American Sign Language Studies and began volunteering at NCSD the same year. Sherry Pruitt, an EBHS graduate who worked in disABILITY Services at Western Piedmont, hired me to interpret several basic classes for 3 deaf students. That did it; I was hooked!”

While at WPCC, Frances was a member of Phi Theta Kappa Honor society, and organization designed to recognize and encourage scholarship among two-year college students. She then continued her education at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, Illinois, where she achieved a 4.0 average and became certified in Deafness Training. She completed the “Train the Trainer” program with Richard Pimentel and Milt Wriight and the Windmills disABILITY Awareness Training Program. In 2018, she earned the SuperStar Award for Customer Service with the VR.

Frances began her career at the high school division of the North Carolina School for the Deaf where she served from 1995 until 2001 as Teacher Assistant and Campus and Mainstream class Interpreter. Not only did she work in the classroom with teachers, but she also assisted with many other school activities such as working in the office, transporting students via mini bus during the summer school sessions, interpreting for a variety of meetings, helping with prom planning and decorating, accompanying students on senior trips, and working with homecoming. While at NCSD, she was chosen as Teacher Assistant of the Year in 2000.

‘In 2001, I took the position of Job Placement Specialist, now known as Business Relations Representatives, with the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation. I worked with Deaf and Hard of Hearing (HOH) individuals seeking employment in a 17-county region. My duties included contacting and hiring licensed ASL interpreters for interviews, orientation, training, and meetings benefitting both the employer and new hires. I met with and established partnerships with employers in the counties I served. My major goal was to provide job placement services to individuals who are qualified for the position they have chosen. I also provided sensitivity training specific to Deaf and HOH culture; taught basic American Sign Language Classes at local community colleges, for employers and other community entities such as churches; conducted Employment Marketing Skills classes to VR job seekers including students attending the NC School for the Deaf, and assisted job seekers with registration, applications, and interviewing skills. I even provided transportation to job seekers for the purpose of job search and application completion at employer sites. I would then follow up with all employers and new hires as they began work and then provided support as needed. Marketing is important as well, and I developed tools to educate employers and other entities about VR Business Services, attended job fairs in order to network with employers, and partnered with Workforce Development Boards to share VR information. It was also part of the job to track and complete reports concerning successful employment outcomes. It was also part of the job to share information with job seekers regarding additional resources other than the VR, for example, Job Accommodation Network (JAN), Office of disABILITY Employmjent Policy, etc. The major goal was to help these applicants meet their job goals and feel productive in their employment.

“My job now as Regional Specialist is to train those BRRs. Having had the experience of doing that job helps me every day to be successful in my mission.

“Since beginning employment with DHHS in 1995, I have been privileged to work with outstanding colleagues, students, clients, employers and other individuals representing community entities. There are challenges, of course. Sometimes, as in most areas, there are situations that are out of one’s control. The old saying, ‘We can lead a horse to water but can’t make him drink’ has special meaning. Economic disasters such as the 2008 recession and the Covid-19 crisis always make finding employment a challenge. Having the opportunity to assist and support others, add value to people’s lives, watching them achieve their goals, and provide valuable services to employers, is very rewarding.

“I’ve had opportunities, and still do, to tour a wide variety of companies and learn about the products they make or distribute. One of my favorite things about the work we do at VR is that it is a never-ending learning experience. The process is fluid. My colleagues and I have learned much more about technology; we typically meet face to face with one another, clients, and employers. But we also use the phone, email, and text; we have adapted by using Microsoft Teams, Zoom, etc. Skype is a tool we’re experienced with, but we’re learning about other types of technology which is enhancing our skills.

“Much education is needed by all regarding how to communicate, hire, and work with persons with disabilities. I hope to continue serving our cause by training as many people as possible by presenting the Windmills disABILITY Awareness modules. I also hope to become a licensed Sign Language Interpreter. The spark that began in that Manual Communications class at East Burke has served me well, given me a lot of satisfaction, and allowed me to play a role in helping people find meaningful work and improve their lives.”

Published May 2020

Home Page