It wasn’t until after Jim Raper suffered a stroke during surgery in January that he realized just how much UAB has to offer its employees. It was then that he began working with the AWARE (Always Working to Advocate, Retain and Employ) Program.
“I’ve been here at UAB and the Health Services Foundation a very long time and I’ve had disabled employees work under my charge, but I’ve never had a disability,” said Raper, professor of medicine and nursing and director of the 1917 Clinic. “When you experience a disability first-hand, it creates a new reality and, in my case, a new appreciation for my employers.”
The stroke, which happened during a surgery to repair his rotator cuff, left him with homonymous hemianopsia — the loss of a portion of the field of vision in both eyes. He now suffers with low vision, which he said makes everything seem dark even in bright light.
“My new condition makes it very difficult for me to see,” Raper said. “Although I have central vision and can see directly in front of me, it’s like looking through a dark tunnel all the time.”
Raper returned to work one month after his stroke. He and his partner reached out the Human Resource administrations at UAB and HSF for recommendations. It was at that time, he was referred to the AWARE Program. He said, it has been an adjustment. He needs to use visual technologies. The loss of vision means he can’t drive, but he can continue to see patients.
“Everyone has been working to make it possible for me to continue my employment,” Raper said. “I certainly find it very difficult to do some things, and I certainly don’t do them as quickly as I once did, but I am still in the workforce enjoying doing what I trained for years to do and I am still being productive. I very much enjoy my work and value my contributions to the Department of Medicine, Division of Infectious Diseases, 1917 Clinic and my patients.”
The AWARE Program is a partnership between UAB and the Alabama Department of Rehabilitation Services. The program provides disability-management services to job applicants and employees whose job performance, job stability or promotional opportunities are affected by a physical, mental or emotional disability.
Sherri Moultrie, UAB AWARE coordinator, said the program’s main components are recruitment and retention. The cost of the program is shared by UAB and ADRS.
“AWARE provides early intervention to employees who experience a disabling condition that affects their ability to perform their job,” Moultrie said. “The program works with the valued employee and their department to identify and build solutions for keeping employees on the job. If an employee is unable to remain in their current position, the program will provide job-placement services to help find a more suitable position.”
The program also helps employees in other ways:
- Provides return-to-work coordination for employees who have been on leave;
- Assists with requests for reasonable accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act;
- Ensures on-site workplace assessments by trained rehabilitation engineers; and
- Conducts disability-awareness and sensitivity training
“The AWARE Program is UAB’s one-stop shop for information and assistance with issues relating to disability for current or potential employees,” Moultrie said.
Raper said he knows all employers have to comply with ADA regulations, but he feels UAB exceeds those requirements.
“[The AWARE Program] is the coordinator and advocate for me,” Raper said. “They work on behalf of UAB and HSF to ensure that I’m retained. Had it not been for the AWARE Program and the Department of Rehabilitation Services, I would have probably just been sent home and labeled as disabled.”
Instead, Raper, who has worked for UAB off and on for 30 years, is celebrating his 15th consecutive year with UAB this year.
Going the extra mile
While AWARE attended his professional needs, Raper’s co-workers stepped in to help take care of some of his day-to-day needs. Dubbing themselves Operation Give Back, the group of volunteers has pitched in to do everything from providing him a ride to work and physical therapy to cooking meals and being certain he gets his lunch.
“It’s just been unbelievable,” Raper said. “I think this teamwork is a special kindness of my staff. I didn’t ask them to do any of this, and, obviously, some do more than others. Almost everyone has done something, and they tell me that nobody feels taken advantage of. Their generosity has just been overwhelming. I am humbled to tears when I think about my co-workers’ willingness to help me in this most challenging time of my life.”
David Butler, program manager at the 1917 Clinic, said there was never a question whether the staff would help Raper adjust or a shortage of volunteers.
“We’re not really helping or assisting Dr. Raper as much as we are just giving back to him,” Butler said. “He has given so much to the clinic as a whole and to us individually. The name Operation Give Back was chosen as it most appropriately captures the spirit of the team.”
For now, Raper is continuing to progress through physical therapy for his shoulder and he continues to see a low-vision specialist at Callahan Eye Foundation for rehabilitation services.
Above all, Raper said it’s important to note that anyone can experience a disabling injury, and he’s glad the UAB AWARE Program is in place to help.
“I was 56 years old. I had never smoked cigarettes. I’ve never had high blood pressure. I’ve never been overweight. I exercise four times a week. I went in to have my shoulder fixed, and I had a stroke,” Raper said. “I suppose this could happen to anyone. We’re all vulnerable, but it’s a great testament to the leadership of UAB to know the institution has the AWARE Progam to enable employees and potential employees to feel valued and to be productive and successful. I am proud of UAB and HSF.”