PA coordinator builds a foundation for success

Jennifer Thomas services and advocates on behalf of personal assistants in Illinois.
The Bullhorn
The Newsletter of Access Living
March 2012

Personal Assistants are a key link to independence for people with disabilities. They partner with people with disabilities who are living in their community or transitioning from a nursing home into a community. They assist with day to day tasks in the home and outside of the home, such as cooking, cleaning, bathing, dressing and shopping. Without PA's, many people with disabilities would be forced into institutions.

Jennifer Thomas has a variety of responsibilities as Personal Assistant (PA) Coordinator for Access Living. She not only recruits and helps consumers manage personal assistants, she also advocates for the protection and longevity of the Personal Assistant Program and for the independence of people with disabilities. Over the past two years, Jennifer has built a resource pool that includes approximately 120 active Personal Assistants. Access Living consumers hire qualified, dedicated PAs from Access Living's resource pool.

In her role as Access Living's Personal Assistant Coordinator, Thomas equips both the personal assistant and the person with a disability with information needed to have a successful working relationship. For people in search of work, she prepares individuals for the PA pool. Preparation includes information about what to expect on the job, and key background information about the disability community and disability awareness. She also coaches people with disabilities on best practices for managing a PA.

Access Living is often in search of quality, motivated personal assistants for the resource pool. People who are interested in becoming a personal assistant are asked to attend a seminar, which is usually once a month. At this seminar, prospective personal assistants begin the process of joining the PA pool. From this seminar, Jennifer picks a few applicants to attend an orientation, the next step in the process. The orientation familiarizes the new personal assistants with the life of a person with a disability. During the orientation, active personal assistants and consumers speak to and provide guidance to the new Personal Assistants. Thomas said the importance of the seminar and orientation is to make the pool of Personal Assistants more “manageable and to choose quality over quantity.” After successfully completing the orientation, applicants join Access Living's PA pool.

In addition to building and maintaining the PA pool, Jennifer works to protect the pool. Two years ago, the State of Illinois proposed eliminating the PA program. If the program had been cut, people with disabilities in search of a PA would have lost the Personal Assistant management and peer–to–peer counseling offered by Thomas. Also, future PA's would have lost out on the disability awareness that Thomas provides. Jennifer's advocacy helped preserve the PA program and keep it safe from cuts. As a result of her work, hundreds of people with disabilities continue to receive guidance and support from Jennifer and from PA coordinators around the state. The guidance and support provides a critical foundation for a successful working relationship between a PA and a person with disability.