RICHMOND, Va.- VCU's Rehabilitation Research and Training Center recently welcomed its new director, Dr. Wendy Parent-Johnson, who takes over for Dr. Paul Wehman, who has been the center's director since its inception in 1983.
The center conducts research and provides educational and employment resources for individuals with disabilities, their families and the professionals who work with them. Parent-Johnson, who previously worked at the RRTC, said she is excited to return and continue the center's work.
“I have had the privilege of working at multiple universities across different communities during the course of my career,” said Parent-Johnson. “I am so excited to be back at RRTC and love everything about being here. One of the main reasons is just to be a part of this incredible team and the energy, passion and commitment that is exhibited daily.”
Parent-Johnson returns to VCU from the University of Arizona where she was the Executive Director of the Sonoran Center for Excellence in Disabilities. She is also the editor of the Journal of Rehabilitation and a member of the editorial boards of the Journal of Vocational Rehabilitation and Developmental Disabilities Network Journal. Parent-Johnson explained what led her to join VCU.
“I learned so much working here early in my career and have always been so impressed by the research and resources that is produced at RRTC, the amazing people and the center’s impact on the disability field internationally,” Parent-Johnson explained. “When I was approached about this opportunity, I was honored and thrilled to return and be a part of this organization.”
The VCU alum brings extensive experience in the areas of supported and customized employment, transition from school to work, Employment First policy and practice, and healthcare transition from pediatric to adult medical care. Jennifer McDonough, the center’s director of training, said the faculty and staff are thrilled to have Parent-Johnson on board.
“We are excited to have Wendy join us as the Director of the RRTC,” said McDonough, “She brings new knowledge on new areas where our Center will be able to grow and expand. Wendy also understands the needs of the populations we serve: job seekers with disabilities, schools, vocational rehabilitation professionals, businesses and researchers.”
In her previous position, Parent-Johnson co-developed the Circle of Indigenous Empowerment in partnership with Tribal Nations and communities in Arizona and Oyate’ Circle in South Dakota focused on creating a central hub of information, resources and trainings designed to enhance employment and quality of life for Tribal members with disabilities. Parent-Johnson said she is eager to continue this work at VCU RRTC.
“I look forward to partnering with our Virginia Tribal Nations and expanding our work to be more accessible and responsive to the needs of Indigenous people and other marginalized communities as well as supporting them to develop new models and resources that improve employment outcomes for these populations,” said Parent-Johnson.
Parent-Johnson assumes the RRTC’s main leadership role from Wehman, who will continue his involvement with the center as the senior research scientist. Wehman discussed the beginning of VCU’s RRTC and its impact on people and communities across the country.
“When we started there were few people in the national workforce with disabilities,” explained Wehman. “What our team provided were hundreds of demonstrations of people, who were considered inept and incapable, finding their rightful place in the workplace with equal status and a paycheck from an employer.”
Wehman, the founding editor of the Journal of Vocational Rehabilitation, also highlighted the center's key successes in disability education, advocacy and employment.
“Our center has helped change the mindset, values and hopes of parents, families, individuals with disabilities and their advocates that real jobs with real pay are possible,” said Wehman. “Good ideas liberated people, and now they cannot be held down.”
In 2001, Wehman received the VCU Distinguished Service Award and was recognized as one of the 50 most influential special educators of the millennium by a national survey coordinated by the Remedial and Special Education journal. Dr. Valerie Brooke, who has worked with Wehman for 46 years, highlighted Wehman’s national and international presentations, articles, books and grants as she explained the importance of Wehman’s contributions to the field.
“Dr. Paul Wehman is a leader, a scholar, a mentor and a friend to countless people interested in the employment of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, traumatic brain injuries, spinal cord injuries, autism and mental health disabilities,” said Brooke, the former director of employment services and the Autism Center for Education. “Paul’s scholarship has had a major impact in the field of rehabilitation and education, that sets him apart from other professionals in our field.”
Brooke also said Wehman created a family-first work culture that helps all employees know that RRTC can be a major resource for themselves and family needs. It’s a work culture that Parent-Johnson explained she will carry forward.
“I see my role as supporting our staff and faculty to continue doing their great work, promoting innovation and advancing new initiatives,” Parent-Johnson explained. “I’d like to ensure a strong infrastructure and increased collaboration across centers and teams. I anticipate more opportunities for us all to join together, share our work, and learn from each other. All the people at RRTC, VCU and the community have been so welcoming and inviting. I've enjoyed meeting with everyone and look forward to working together and exploring the many new possibilities that the future holds.”