Justin Herbst doesn't think of himself as an inspiration. Instead, he's just someone trying to improve his life, he says.
At 27, he works as a supervisor in the human resources department at United Parcel Service (UPS) in Hodgkins, Ill.
That he also happens to be paraplegic is incidental, from his point of view. Considering he works to help college interns learn to balance school and career, it is undeniable that he is a role model, however. He seems to know a thing or two about taking the bull by the horns.
"Being able to change the way people think about what disability means and the perception of it is better than being called an 'inspiration' or 'amazing,' he said. "It's more important if I can change the way people think.'"
And he does, not only in his work, where he helps young people learn about the workplace, but as a person shattering stereotypes about what paraplegics can do.
For a person with paraplegia to hold down a full-time job, however, a personal care assistant is a must. Justin has a personal care assistant provided by the Illinois Department of Rehabilitation Services. Without him "I'd be lying down in bed all day."
The personal care assistant spends three hours each day with Herbst preparing him for work. He does everything from bathing him to brushing his teeth.
Herbst said the DRS also helped him attend Southern Illinois University, which otherwise could not have been possible. DRS provided him with scholarships and also made sure he received accommodations such as a personal note-taker and extra time for tests. "Basically without DRS I don't know where I'd be. I wouldn't have any services or know how to utilize what's available."
Herbst had a stroke shorty after being born prematurely, resulting in paralysis. But he has viewed his disability as something he could "enhance" as long as he remembers. His parents, and indeed the state of Illinois, did everything 'right' every step of the way, he said. He attended school with able-bodied youngsters and had lots of friends.
"The perception of having a disability is so bad," he said. "What you have to go about doing as a disabled person is to find a way to penetrate that negative aura and make things better. You can have your days of pity party and negativity. Everyone has those days. I have those days. "
But he overcame them, getting off state disability support and now earning a respectable salary. While he still lives at home with his parents, independent living is not out of the question, he said, and that's his next goal. The challenge now, he said, is finding suitable housing.
Tereta Love-Rutherford works as a senior rehabilitation counselor for DRS in Murphysboro, Ill. She made sure Herbst had the services he needed so that he was able to graduate with a 3.49 grade point average.
She said his success story actually is more common than one might think, with 90 percent of her clients completing college. "Every individual, no matter if they have a disability or not, should have every opportunity to improve their lives and become productive members of society, if that is their desire."
She said DRS helps level the playing field so a person with a disability has real shot at the job. "Every time an individual with a disability is able to obtain gainful employment, it is a very good day for the individual, our agency, and the entire country."
DHS' Division of Rehabilitation Services is the state's lead agency serving individuals with disabilities. DRS works in partnership with people with disabilities and their families to assist them in making informed choices to achieve full community participation through employment, education, and independent living opportunities.
To learn more, call 1-877-761-9780 Voice, 1-866-264-2149 TTY, (312) 957-4881 VP, or read about DRS's Services. Refer yourself or someone else for services using the online Rehabilitation Services Web Referral.