LONGMONT — On one side of Sloan’s Lake in northwest Denver, Chad Foster sits at his computer typing, a digital media producer who, from his living room, burns DVDs about amateur sports and travel for his customers.
On the other side of the lake sits St. Anthony Central Hospital, where nearly six years ago a Flight For Life helicopter landed on the roof with a patient, paralyzed in a Sunday morning hockey game that left two vertebrae scrambled in his neck.
Foster, that same patient whom neurologists and nurses quietly urged to accept his paralysis, used vocational rehabilitation to get where he is now: operating his own business — with a great view.
“Whether you’re born with a disability or suffer an injury,” Foster said last week from his Denver home, “(vocational rehab) takes such a load off. It puts you in focus to make (employment) happen.”
The Colorado Division of Vocational Rehabilitation, under the Colorado Department of Human Services, helps people who, through illness or injury, have encountered obstacles to gaining employment.
According to the 2004 National Organization on Disability Harris Survey, only 35 percent of people ages 18 to 64 with disabilities are employed, less than half the employment rate of those without disabilities.
Nancy Smith, director of Colorado’s vocational rehab, called this untapped population “an incredible resource of people who are talented, skilled and eager to work and are not being used.”
“In our society in particular, there’s something really tied up in our identity by our work and how we contribute to the community,” Smith said.
Smith said vocational rehab serves a variety of people at different stages of employment. There are also specialized programs that cater to migrant workers, the self-employed, the newly blind and young adults with their first jobs.
Smith said the department annually sees about 20,000 clients, and an estimated 1,600 to 1,800 enter the work force each year.
“We see everything from truck drivers to tradespeople to self-employed businesses. We even have a traveling veterinarian and a hypnotherapist,” Smith said.
Tracy Allen, once a cabinet maker with a Lafayette company, was a wage earner for 25 years when carpal tunnel syndrome in both wrists derailed her work two years ago.
“I was really at an impasse as to what to do. Not being able to do that as a career was not in my thought process,” Allen said.
A friend suggested she call vocational rehab “to see what they were or what they could do” for Allen.
Soon after, Allen had an appointment, and she took several tests to determine her strengths and talents. A case manager then created a specific plan for her based on the results.
The plan was simple: Allen earned her GED high school equivalency certificate and then an associate’s degree in criminal justice from Aims Community College. She now works full time as a security officer for Boulder Community Hospital.
“My perception of myself is very different,” she said. “I never saw myself on a higher level of professionalism. I was just a warehouse worker because I didn’t have any kind of degree.”
Smith said getting people into the work force has two benefits: it makes them taxpayers, which helps support the state and municipality they work in; and it ends their dependence on federal assistance, such as food stamps or welfare checks, which costs the working population.
Despite the advantages, Smith said subtle attitudes still prevail about hiring or working with a person with a disability. She said vocational rehab succeeds if employers, too, are willing to “hire good people.”
“They are real resources, not charity cases,” Smith said of vocational rehab clients. “Our goal is essentially to help people achieve their dreams, to help people get to a point in their lives, to get a good job, to have a good life they’ve always hoped for.”
For Foster, it was a life-altering spinal cord injury that helped him discover a career in digital media.
Wanderlust had consumed the young man, a Toronto native, who spent his early 20s on adventures in Dallas, Charlotte, N.C., Tampa, Fla., and even Fiji. Foster and his older brother headed to Boulder in June 1999 for the next chapter of tall tales.
On Oct. 3, 1999, though, a friendly hockey game at the Lafayette YMCA turned ruinous when Foster lost his balance somehow and dove headfirst into the rink’s sideboards. The fall left Foster with one vertebrae crushed and another fractured.
As he lay on the ice, he could move only one of his forearms. Everything else, from fingers to toes, was motionless despite his brain’s urgent pleas to wiggle them.
The young man was told he would probably never lose the paralysis. But a week later, he accidentally kicked at a nurse who was moving his right leg during therapy. Within two months, Foster was walking with crutches.
Now, little evidence remains in Foster’s body of the horrific accident. His gait is strong. He fidgets in his chair. He talks with his hands, though they are his weakest limbs.
But Foster, who had bounced in and out of college classes wherever adventure led him, wondered what was in store now. Someone suggested he visit the Boulder vocational rehab office, one of 16 in the state.
“I’ve gotten so much back. I’m not in a wheelchair, but I’m not normal,” Foster said. “I have issues you can’t see. I remember thinking ‘How can I ask for help?’”
Now running his own business, FB Productions — which films amateur and local sports teams or travel trips and then creates DVDs with graphics and music — the entrepreneur said vocational rehab gave him a game plan.
“We found out my limitations, what I wanted and what was feasible,” he said.
Nerve pain and spasticity pang Foster daily. He also said he can’t type fast nor sit for long periods of time.
Through vocational rehab, Foster decided self-employment was the route to go. He attended Front Range Community College briefly and then earned a bachelor’s degree in digital media production at the Art Institute of Colorado in downtown Denver.
For both Foster and Allen, vocation rehab provided grant money for their schooling, as well as equipment like computers. Smith called it a worthy investment, adding that no one is denied vocational rehab services because of lack of income.
Said Allen of her new career: “I think the biggest thing is that this is a second chance. It’s a second life.”
Melanie M. Sidwell can be reached at 303-684-5274, or by e-mail at