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Disabled Opportunities: Opportunities for Ohioans with Disabilities is Supposed to get People Back on their Feet. Too Often Instead, it Swipes their Legs Out from Under Them 

>Illustrated by both personal anecdotes and federal reports, Opportunities for Ohioans with Disabilities (OOD) just can't seem to wriggle free from its own bureaucratic mess. More importantly, though, some of the very people meant to benefit from the state agency's services can't escape its harmful grip.

Cleveland resident Bob Russo says he was put through the ringer by state employees wasting both his time and various lines of tax funding by shuffling his case from one office to the next. "[The OOD] knowingly sent me to some place that was never going to do anything for me," Russo tells Scene.

He came to the agency's doorstep in 2011 with degenerative disc disease, dyslexia, and stress and anxiety issues rankling his efforts at stable employment. This is what the OOD is organized to address — help people like Russo iron out their job skills and return to the workforce via vocational training or licensure assistance. The funding for such benefits comes via state tax revenue and a federal match. By and large, the program accomplishes its goals. But a patchwork of eye-opening tales bears out worrisome federal reports that something just isn't right at the massive state organization.

Russo's first interaction with the OOD came when he was called up to a gray reception desk in 2011; he says an employee began by insisting, "You don't look disabled." From there, each interaction with OOD employees only became more uncomfortable and oddly personal, he says.

"They methodically took [benefits] away, because I had the nerve to ask a question," Russo says. And a closer look between the lines of OOD success stories reveals a pattern of dead-ends and failures that correlates Russo's own journey into the heart of state bureaucracy.

The 64-year-old Italian man is leaning forward in his chair at a Lakewood coffee shop. He lives on the west side of Cleveland proper, though he spent most of his life in Boston, where he operated End Zone Bar and Grill (home in some capacity to the Patriots, Bruins, Celtics and Red Sox fan bases). Out of work for years now, Russo is hoping to jumpstart an entrepreneurial effort via microloans available through the OOD. Using his operational management background, he's hoping to run an independent sales route for some larger company.

To paraphrase the OOD, fat chance of that.

***

Opportunities for Ohioans with Disabilities plays a fundamental role in state government — namely, helping people who've been dealt a bad hand get back on their feet. The OOD granted $5.3 million to 464 clients between 2010 and 2012 — seed money to get people out and working again. For example, the OOD helped Marietta resident Tim Lang obtain special equipment for his dairy farm (Lang lost his right arm in a machinery accident).

The agency is working with a $248.9 million budget going into fiscal year 2015. While the chant for "jobs, jobs, jobs" rings across the populace, this is ground zero for making at least part of that mission a reality.

That's the surface-level appearance of the agency. Everything else is murky.

Late last year, the OOD underwent a full-on rebranding campaign. The agency had formerly been known as the Ohio Rehabilitation Services Commission, which is as opaque as it sounds. Executive director Kevin Miller recognized that. According to the agency's findings, 88 percent of poll respondents statewide in 2013 didn't even know what the OOD did. Plus, the OOD kept getting mail for the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction — inquiries to get involved with drug and alcohol rehab outreach and the like.

A series of town-hall meetings that year continued the agency's trend of trying to feel out the opinions of the people. In every instance of public facetime, the demand for improved customer service was paramount.

Despite the name change, public awareness is slow to come around. Miller and the agency are taking early April to invite public input into the OOD's 2015 state plan. (The OOD will bring its public forum to Cleveland on April 8, from 12:30 to 2:30 p.m. in Room 229 at Cuyahoga Community College East in Warrensville Heights.)

Barbara Corner, a lawyer with Ohio Rights Group, says that part of her job includes assisting OOD clients in investigating potential problems they may be having. At times, it takes legal counsel to parse through the labyrinthine world of state organizations.

It's tricky, because the OOD doesn't always follow its own set of policies. Eligibility for OOD employment services is established by vocational rehabilitation counseling staff according to the annual reports published by the U.S. Department of Education, which oversees the OOD. Residents already eligible for Social Security benefits or county boards of disabilities benefits and residents already designated as having a "severe and persistent mental illness" are the sorts of folks the OOD is trying to reach.

Like Bob Russo.

***

It's often unclear how impactful the agency's assistance really is once money is doled out to clients. OOD monitors businesses it finances for only 90 days after funding approval, and the agency seems unable to provide Scene or any other news outlet with hard information about the impact of that money.

Columbus' ABC news team, for example, revealed in December, 2013, that the OOD had given thousands of dollars to a seven-time convicted felon for a bike rental business that later tanked. These are federal tax dollars funding OOD enterprises, and there is no real sense of accountability for when the cash hits a dead end.

Russo admits he bears a criminal history too. His 1988 drug dealing charges and a 1997 DUI were brought up repeatedly as marks against him, including during his very first interaction with OOD employees, though the state agency may only flag crimes from the past seven years. At one point, employees at Vocational Services Unlimited, a subsidiary organization of OOD, noted in his records that Russo "works for the Boston mob." Russo guffaws when that comes up; he still has no idea where that assumption came from and why it stuck in his records like a bad headache. His maze of paperwork from the OOD shows that most knocks against him come from informal characterizations about his conversations with employees.

Even beyond his past crimes, though, Russo took hits for all sorts of seemingly irrelevant factors. He was consistently labeled as having terrible interpersonal issues or being arrogant, neither of which really has any bearing on his eligibility for OOD assistance. At one point, an OOD employee summarily deflected Russo's concerns with a flippant reply of, "If you don't like it, why don't you go back to Boston and get it done there?"

For the time being, Russo was caught between various OOD forces. He was driving out to meet different people at different offices for three years, never once getting an answer about future employment prospects, he says.

The OOD sends clients to all sorts of subcontracting organizations — vocational services outfits that get people closer to the goals they have in mind. One of these groups borrowed the OOD's "interpersonal issues" line and later told Russo that they had spoken with his therapist. Russo's therapist, Jeffrey Holcomb, expressed to Scene some concern that his input was taken wildly out of context. As Russo continued his journey through the OOD, he found that the "interpersonal issues" tag followed him wherever he went.

"I think [he] has very good interpersonal skills," Holcomb says. "The concerns I had with this agency were that they seem like they spend more of their time characterizing him rather than helping him. That's number one. Number two was just simply not getting him on job interviews."

Russo's case was closed in October 2013, though he didn't find that out until earlier this year. After long stretches of silence from the OOD, he filed a litany of state and federal complaints against the department. He entered the state's mediation process last month. In all, he seeks damages including $12 per hour for the previous three years, $25,000 in damages for each of those previous three years, and another $26,000 for "pain, suffering, and discrimination," he says.

***

A lawsuit filed against OOD executive director Kevin Miller in 2011 in Ohio's Southern District federal court alleges, among other things, a two-year odyssey of complacency and negligence. The plaintiff in that case, one Lavieena Campbell from Cincinnati, describes an agency that performs duties as passively as possible and closes client cases without notice. She spent years shuffling from one office and counselor to another, all for naught.

In her case, the Ohio Legal Rights Service defense sought an end to the OOD's "pattern and practice of repeatedly dismissing requests from RSC [ed note: the formerly titled Ohio Rehabilitation Services Commission] clients for impartial due process hearings of decisions made by state vocational rehabilitation officials."

Campbell's comments to Scene mirror Russo's experiences. "[The OOD] got me out of the program and I didn't know that I was out of the program. I never got a notice from them.

"I think they should do better and do more for people who go to them for help," Campbell says. "And there was never an advocate for me. I was hurt, and I'm still hurting...I don't even know why I'm going back, because I know it's going to be a dead end again." Problem is, all too many local and county disability groups are tied back to the OOD, whether via funding or operations oversight.

Six months after the initial court filing, the OOD won a motion to dismiss Campbell's case. Three years after that ordeal and with no alternatives left, Campbell says she's forced to apply for the OOD program once more. As Campbell eyes a return to the OOD folds, Campbell begins to choke up a bit over the phone. "I went through a lot with them; they really hurt me," she says. But in the disability game in Ohio, all roads lead back to the OOD.

Corner, the Disability Rights Ohio lawyer, says that for many people with particular disabilities, that's the truth. The OOD carries third-party contracts with local agencies, reeling in many smaller outfits to operate under the OOD umbrella. "It can get really confusing as to who is wearing what hat, and I'm a lawyer and I find it confusing," she says. "You can imagine how it is for some of the clients."

Back in Cleveland, Russo recollects his own journey through the OOD's third-party contractors. He got caught in the snares of an outfit called Vocational Services Unlimited, though he didn't even know that was still part of the OOD network until much later.

He remains hopeful for his own mediation efforts. Precedent isn't great.

***

Allegations of weak management dot the OOD's recent history. Former director John Connelly racked up accusations of financial sluggishness, abusive management patterns and public records quashing throughout his time at the helm. He was politically ousted in 2009. Now, the director position is an appointment of the governor, which is how Miller came to head the OOD a few years ago.

An annual report from the U.S. Department of Education released in October, 2013, reveals that the OOD was improperly using funds, echoing charges that have tailed the organization for years. In contention was $30 million flagged for local groups that work under the aegis of OOD.

The report suggests that much of that money was not directly improving the prospects of OOD clients; rather, federal funds were being used for things like cell phone bills at some of the OOD's third-party contractors.

Miller has said in interviews that the OOD is working to remedy that problem. The federal report charges that some of that money may need to be repaid. But as funding sources and consequences are debated at the higher levels of public administration, clients on the ground see little more than uncertainty.

On Russo's end, all he sees is a mountain of paperwork generated over the past three years. He lugs his files around in two massive tote bags, though he says the stack that the OOD attorneys maintain on him is even thicker.

"They are shaking the federal government down. They are getting paid for all this toilet paper they're writing," Russo says. "These people clearly discriminate against people. They are using the federal government's money to do it. And I don't think the feds paid them to do this."

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