At her first paid community job, Linda Akagi is testing software that helps people like her who experience significant communication barriers.
Linda, 62, experiences cerebral palsy. When she was born, she was pronounced dead by doctors. After 5 minutes, she moved her feet and Linda defied expectations for what would be the first, but certainly not the last, time.
Born and raised in Portland, Linda went to school at the Holladay Center, known at the time as the Holladay Center for the Handicapped. Linda did not like attending a segregated school, and was determined to graduate from high school and go on to college.
“I wanted to go to a regular school,” Linda said. “I didn’t want to end up in a workshop.”
Linda won that battle and attended Madison High School. After she graduated high school Linda did end up in a sheltered workshop for a brief period. She left, however, to go to college and earned her bachelor’s degree in psychology.
“I knew I had more value than what others put on me,” Linda said. “I wanted to work with people. I like it so much.”
Linda has significant communication barriers, and those barriers meant her abilities were often under-estimated. After college, Linda spent much of her time in day support activities and also worked for a provider doing data entry and other jobs.
In 2015, Linda opened her file with Vocational Rehabilitation. Linda worked with VR I/DD Counselor Pennie Hartley, who said she was determined to find a good job fit for Linda.
“I was so personally inspired by Linda,” Pennie said. “I said, ‘This is the file she is going to get a job.’”
It turns out, Linda found herself a job. After seeing a speech by Sam Sennott, an assistant professor of special education at Portland State University, Linda approached him about hiring her. Sennott is the director of PSU’s Universal Design Lab, which is focused on research and development of innovative technologies to help people with disabilities and communication barriers.
“Linda just kept showing up at the lab every morning and we always had things for her to do,” Sennott said. “We weren’t sure we were ready to hire someone, but Linda made us ready.”
Sennott called Pennie Hartley with VR and they scheduled a meeting with Linda to get her supports in place. In December 2017, Linda was hired to work 18 hours per week at PSU as a research lab assistant.
Part of Sennott’s goal is to develop applications that will work on a standard device that any family or individual could afford. Many devices for people with significant communication barriers are expensive and require a special technician.
Part of Linda’s duties include testing the applications and devices and finding issues. On the day we met her, Linda’s tablet cracked in her bag attached to her wheelchair between her apartment and coming to work. Sennott used this as a teaching moment with his students and other lab assistants.
“See, the devices are going to break and we need to figure that into our process,” he pointed out.
Linda said she has had 10 different tablets and struggled to find one that meets her needs. While Sennott’s research is primarily focused on helping children, Linda hopes that her work will help people like her who have ambitions, but struggle to communicate.
“This is what I always wanted to do,” Linda said, smiling broadly. “I want to help people with complex needs like me.”
Linda’s job coach Alexander Raines, an employment specialist with United Cerebral Palsy of Oregon and Southwest Washington, supports Linda on the job. He has a special rapport with Linda, and can understand her and help her to communicate with others.
“This job has been life changing for Linda,” he said. “For me, being a job coach for Linda means making sure she is supported to achieve what she wants, and to communicate her needs to the rest of the staff.”
Linda’s job has given her the opportunity to attend professional conferences, as well as attend classes in her field. She said she is a lifelong learner who relishes the academic environment. In her 60s, Linda finally has the dream job she fought for her entire life.
“Linda did this on her own. She got through high school and college, yes with lots of support, but it was her self-determination,” Sennott said. “She is an example showing parents that, in this modern age when we have so many more resources, that with her spirit and those resources, a lot more can be done. And we are so thankful she is a part of that.”
Linda’s employment team includes Pennie Hartley, VR counselor; Stephanie Scovill, service coordinator with Multnomah County Developmental Disabilities Services; Alexander Raines, job coach and an employment specialist with UCP of Oregon and Southwest Washington; and Melanie Fried-Oken, a certified speech-language pathologist at Oregon Health & Science University who has worked with Linda for several years.
You can view a video of Linda at Portland State University.