May 8, 2024

VCU Student with Cerebral Palsy Connects Passion with Employment

Chad Lowery, a VCU School of Education student majoring in special education, combined his passion for advocating for individuals with disabilities with his employment at BeneCounsel, a law firm in Richmond that specializes in disability benefits and advocacy. (Photo by Hannah Jimerson)

RICHMOND, Va.- Finding employment can be a challenge for anyone. Finding employment that matches one’s passion and career goals can be a greater challenge. But for one Virginia Commonwealth University student with Cerebral Palsy, combining his degree path and current work with his desire to help people with disabilities meets that challenge.

Chad Lowery, an undergraduate student at VCU School of Education, is majoring in special education and is a legal assistant at a local law firm specializing in disability rights and advocacy. 

“I have a passion for helping other individuals with disabilities,” Lowery said. “I think there are people I can help… people who face the same challenges as me.”

Lowery’s employment journey began in 2019 when he joined VCU Rehabilitation Research and Training Center’s Business Connections program after graduating from high school to assist him in finding employment that would align with his passion. He explained the importance of advocacy for individuals with disabilities and why he utilized VCU-RRTC.

“I feel like people, or society rather, doesn't expect individuals like myself to have the desire of having a job, going to school, having a career, having a family someday and I think RRTC is a good resource to show society you can't judge a book by its cover, you need to really know a person as they are instead of what they look like,” he said.

Mallary McEvoy, an employment specialist at VCU-RRTC, described the collaborative process of discovering the right employment fit for Lowery.

“I learned about Chad's interests and strengths by meeting regularly with him,” McEvoy said. “Prior to working with me, Chad had a position at a therapeutic office as a communications and data assistant. So we were able to work from that to discuss what he liked and didn't like about that, what he felt strongly about as far as doing well, and what he wanted to improve. Using that information, we were able to create an idea for what he valued and what kind of company he wanted to be a part of.”

Lowery wanted to be part of a company with a strong culture and to be an advocate for disability rights, supported employment and special education and to work with individuals with disabilities. McEvoy highlighted one of the ways he was able to stand out as a job candidate.

“We were able to create, through the support of his job coaches here, a visual resume that played into his strengths,” McEvoy said. “One of those things was that Chad had some really awesome artwork. He had a modeling gig at one point and we were able to put some of those modeling pictures on his visual resume and just allow that alternative format to show Chad as a whole person. That person-centered approach helped him build confidence, but also stick out as a candidate.”

McEvoy explained that they wanted to help businesses see that Lowery's abilities far outweighed his barriers and that his strengths with communication, computer and technology abilities, and his strong personality, friendly demeanor, outgoing and collaborative approach to things would be an asset to companies.

“So much of what we do is try to help companies look at their bottom line and then look at the assets our clients have to offer and find a mutually beneficial relationship,” McEvoy explained. “And from the start at BeneCounsel, Matt saw possibility instead of disability for Chad.”

Attorney Matt Bellinger, owner of BeneCounsel, discusses work tasks with Lowery. Bellinger hired Lowery in 2023 as he expanded his law firm operations. (Photo by Lucian Friel)

In 2014, Matt Bellinger started BeneCounsel, a law firm in Richmond that specializes in disability benefits and legal services such as guardianships and powers of attorney, after noticing the barriers and difficulties of navigating disability benefits for his child.

“I was trying to figure out Medicaid waiver services, getting really confused, threw my pen down and literally thought to myself, ‘You’d have to quit your job and do this full-time to figure it out,’ and I was an attorney,” Bellinger said. “That’s where the lightbulb went off. If I need help, so do other parents.”

After working independently for several years, Bellinger’s caseload grew to a point where he realized he needed to expand and hire employees. In 2022, he began the process of searching for legal assistants and decided that hiring individuals with disabilities to fill those positions was what he wanted to do.

“I was thinking, I could go the standard route and hire a paralegal. But then I started thinking, well, that’s typically how you would do it, but is that really what I should do?” Bellinger explained. “Why don’t I hire a person with a disability, because that’s who I serve. The more I thought about that, the idea grew, so that’s what we did.”. 

Bellinger was familiar with VCU-RRTC through a family member who utilized Business Connections in the past. He sent the job description and application process to a number of organizations and Lowery was among the applicants. Bellinger said Lowery was the best suited for the job and was hired in 2023. Bellinger explained the impact Lowery has made on the firm.

“Chad is super focused,” Bellinger said. “Chad does all of our guardianship documents. Chad writes the powers of attorney and recently started doing trusts and wills. So it’s not just clerical work. We’re ahead on guardianship cases. Chad is doing the work.” 

Lowery also benefited from his employment at the firm, discussing one of his favorite aspects of his work.

“I really like collaborating with our clients or just people,” Lowery said. “I’m very interpersonal. I like building relationships and expanding my network of people.”

Lowery uses a dwell clicker, an assistive technology device, to help him complete his work duties. (Photo by Lucian Friel)

Lowery uses assistive technology in his everyday work, such as a dwell clicker, which allows him to utilize a joystick from his wheelchair with a Bluetooth connection, and it allows him to hone in on one part of the screen and click on items accurately. He also uses a screen-based keyboard with some word prediction, allowing him to type efficiently. Lowery played a key role in establishing what technology he would need to be successful.

“Luckily, he's really on top of it with his tech, and he was able to self-advocate and say, here's what I need, here's what I don't need,” McEvoy explained. “His employer was super involved in the process, which made it so much more helpful because Matt, from the start, was willing to be a part of that conversation rather than just be told what to do.”

Bellinger discussed how hiring individuals with disabilities affects his business and can affect other companies.

“The benefits to my organization, and I think any organization that successfully hires persons with disabilities is that you become a better organization,” Bellinger explained. “In order for it to work, you really have to focus on the employees, what are their needs, anticipate the accommodations they may need, and that has a carry-over effect on your other employees too. If you're focusing on your employees with disabilities to make them successful, you're also going to be focusing on your employees without disabilities to make them successful.”

Lowery added, “I may have a disability, and I may need accommodations but it doesn't mean you have to change the whole process and protocol or the job description. I want to normalize individuals with disabilities [being employed].”

As Lowery continues his education at VCU and his work at BeneCounsel helping other individuals with disabilities, he talked about his hopes for the future.

“I want to do something in the area of special education, it could be a teacher, it could be a college professor, but I know that I want to be a voice of the community.”