Janet LaBreck — Interview with Lia Martirosyan and Chet Cooper

janet labreck getting the next generation ready to work

As commissioner of the Rehabilitation Services Administration, Janet LaBreck oversees programs that help people with disabilities find employment and live more independently. Prior to that role within the US Department of Education, she headed up the Massachusetts Commission for the Blind, which served more than 30,000 people. ABILITY’s Chet Cooper and Lia Martirosyan were in the nation’s capital to talk with LaBreck about the Obama Administration’s vision for cultivating the workforce of the future. At times, LaBreck’s husband, Russell, joined in the conversation.

Janet LaBreck: Disability crosses every area, every socio-economic status, and includes every ethnicity.

Cooper: Right. We say it’s the fabric of all our lives, eventually affecting us personally. Unless you die instantly, you’re likely to have some form of disability as you age. Stats show we generally have 13 years of one or more disabilities in our lifetime.

LaBreck: Wow!

Cooper: The work we do tends to be geared more towards the employable-age workforce; we’re trying to change society’s attitudes in that sector. People’s attitude eventually change, as they acquire a disability. Although we do know people who have aged, acquired a disability, but don’t think of it as one.

LaBreck: Isn’t that interesting.

Cooper: They think of it as a health issue.

LaBreck: A condition.

Cooper: You’ll hear people saying, “What did you say?, What?” They have severe hearing loss. Yet they aren’t connecting to the reality it’s a disability.

LaBreck: “You just crossed over…”. You know, when I came into my role as commissioner in Massachusetts, I really felt very strongly about using that platform as an opportunity to get current information out, whether it was disability related or political. For the six years that I was there, I hosted a show on the Radio Reading Service Network, which covered programming for 23 states throughout the country.

As host, I stepped out of the traditional commissioner role. I brought political figures in and sought out authors who may have written books about disability, and also those who had some knowledge or interest in bringing information to this community. Beyond the blind community, Reading Radio Service Network is for anyone who has an inability to access printed material, for whatever reason. I even did a program once on tax exemptions and benefits for people with disabilities, and told the gentleman: “Whatever you do, you can’t sound like you’re reading a tax book.” And what did he do? He sounded like he was reading a tax book! And I thought, I’ll never have you on again. Over all though, hosting the show was a great experience. And Radio Reading Service Network won over 35 awards. I personally won two for national and international programming.

Cooper: What were the awards?

LaBreck: For the national award, I had interviewed a combination of both able-bodied and individuals with disabilities, discussing complex topics. And the international one was on political issues around the world; I got a chance to interview British Member of Parliament David Blunkett, when Tony Blair was prime minister. Blunkett was scheduled to succeed him, until Blair got into a bit of trouble. Blunkett would have been the first British person who was blind to serve as prime minister.

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Cooper: I hadn’t heard about him.

LaBreck: He’s still in parliament. When I interviewed him, it was really tough getting clearance, and they initially said, “You only have 23 minutes, because he’s got to be back in parliament.” And I said, “Okay.” But by the time it was over, he ended up giving me 45 minutes, because we hit it off. And we were able to broadcast those programs and carry them across the country as well through other Radio Reading Service affiliates throughout Massachusetts and around the country.

Cooper: Have you been to the CSUN Conference (International Technology & Persons with Disabilities Conference) in California?

LaBreck: I have not. I had hoped to go last year.

Cooper: If you had, you would’ve met Stevie Wonder.

LaBreck: I know! Interestingly enough, I just finished reading his book, which focused on his mom and his disability. It’s a powerful story, absolutely incredible. When I was commissioner in Massachusetts, I sent folks to CSUN because we always wanted to stay at the forefront of what was going on assistive technology-wise. For a state agency, we had one of the largest technology programs in the country.

Cooper: Maybe you’ll go to CSUN next year.

LaBreck: I really want to make it, especially if Stevie goes. You did an article on him.

Cooper: Yes, after CSUN, we met him at his home in LA.

LaBreck: I was at a Massachusetts Association for the Blind event where they gave him the Vision Award a few years ago. He was there, but it would have been inappropriate to act like a fan. Plus he had such a huge entourage. He can be hard to get to.

A friend of mine who went to the Perkins School for the Blind toured with Stevie Wonder for quite a while. He even sounds like Stevie. So Lia, you’re an opera singer?

Lia Martirosyan: That’s what they tell me.

LaBreck: How long have you been singing?

Martirosyan: I’m classically trained, and I’ve been doing it for the past five years, which is still a relatively short time for the genre. Definitely a lovely journey.

Cooper: Last year when we attended the WWW (World Wide Web) and W4A (Web for All) conferences in South Korea, they invited Lia to sing in 2015. It will be in Florence, Italy.

LaBreck: That’s wonderful.

Martirosyan: Indeed.

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Russell LaBreck: Have you been there before?

Martirosyan: No, and I’m going to bring my stretchy pants.


LaBreck: So you can eat all day.

Martirosyan: Exactly.

Cooper: Tell me more about your educational background.

LaBreck: I went to public school first, but when I started losing my vision, they decided that I would get a better education if I went to Perkins School for the Blind. And I got an absolutely wonderful education. I was also musically inclined, and started singing at Perkins. Beverly Sills, the late opera singer, invited me to New York. I went for a visit, and then she wanted my parents to hand me over to her to train, and my mother was like, “Are you kidding me? There is no way!” So I continued to train, but not under her.

Martirosyan: Too bad.

LaBreck: I know. But I still had my glory days with singing and I loved it. The first time I ever went to an opera, Beverly Sills took me. It was in New York, and it was fantastic.

Martirosyan: Which opera?

russel and janet Labreck
Russel and Janet Labreck

LaBreck: I don’t even remember. It was at the Met. It might have been Aida. And it was a totally different world, totally foreign to me, and very interesting. So I have a great appreciation for opera and opera singers; it’s a difficult craft to master.

Martirosyan: Do you still belt out some notes around the house every now and again?

Russell: I try to get her to sing, and she will not do it. I don’t know why; I gave up trying a long time ago.

LaBreck: I was never meant to be a public singer. I did it at school because it was fun, but that was it.

Russell: When we met many years ago, there was a soul band similar to the Temptations. And one of them heard her sing, and wanted her to join. We had some talks around it, but she totally convinced me that that wasn’t the route she wanted to take. She really wanted to work in the disability field. We started to get more serious about our relationship. I said to her, “Look, that’s not my world, but if you want to go off and do your thing, I’ll support you.” It was funny how we had that conversation. It almost scared me. I was thinking Whitney Houston.

LaBreck: No, no, not even close.

Cooper: Janet, when did you start to lose your vision?

LaBreck: It probably started going early on in my childhood, but it was never detected. I was in the classroom and I would have difficulty seeing the blackboard and reading from a book. Although I do distinctly recall a time before that when I was able to lay a book in my lap and see the print with no problem at all.

I first started having difficulty seeing at nighttime, but I wasn’t aware of it because I’d be out playing with the other kids and the minute it would start to get dark, I started to miss things. I would miss a ball that I normally would have caught. Or I wasn’t able to hit the ball when I normally would have been able to.

Cooper: That sounds like an excuse for missing the ball.

LaBreck: (laughs) Exactly! I would say, “OK, we’ve got to stop playing because it’s getting dark,” and the kids listened to me, which probably prolonged the fact that I was having trouble. In elementary school, if they said, “Read what’s on the blackboard,” I would say, “I can’t see it,” which they perceived as acting-out behavior. Finally there was someone who was perceptive enough to recognize that I had a vision problem. She said, “We need you to go see the school eye doctor.” And when the eye doctor did the examination, he said, “Yeah, there’s definitely something going on, but I don’t think glasses will help.”

My parents began a two-year pilgrimage to see specialists. We are originally from the Berkshires, and my parents would drive down to Boston to the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary. It seemed like every time I saw a different doctor, they had a different diagnosis or they weren’t even sure what the diagnosis was. Nobody could label it. They asked that we be a part of a study, and brought all six of us siblings in for examinations. That was when they realized that four out of the six of us were dealing with the same issue, but they didn’t know what to call it or what it was. Four out of six children! After about two and a half years, they diagnosed it as a rare form of retinitis pigmentosa. They had never seen it in that many family members. So we became interesting, I guess.

Cooper: The poster family.

LaBreck: Yes! The poster family. They studied us for quite a while. At some point, I had to say, “It is what it is. We now have a diagnosis. The prognosis is not good. So what’s next for me? What am I supposed to do?” The doctors said, “You’ll never be able to work. You should just go to a special school,” which is what I did, but I never accepted the idea of giving up on going to work. I used to think, “There’s got to be something I can do. I don’t know what I can do, but I’m going to find it.”

Going to Perkins for me was the best thing that ever happened. As challenging as it was to be taken away from my family at 12, and to live there for seven years without family support, it was for the best because Perkins had a different level of expectation, and they helped me discover skills and things I could do. That’s when I learned about singing, and when I learned that I had athletic abilities and enjoyed track and field. My brother and I were there together. We traveled and we both became multiple award winners in track and field events up and down the East Coast, and around the country. I probably would not have ever been exposed to those opportunities if I had stayed in public school, because they just didn’t have the expertise. We didn’t have technology then. It was still very, very new. It sounds like I’m talking about prehistoric times, but we’re only talking about the ‘70s.

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Cooper: I wouldn’t know. I wasn’t born then.

LaBreck: (laughs) It was crazy. The experience at Perkins gave me an opportunity to think about my life and plan it out in a way that I probably would not have been able to do if I hadn’t gone there.

Cooper: Did you ever try the Paralympics?

LaBreck: No. We competed in the Eastern Athletic Association for the Blind, and we went around the country competing against other schools for the blind. Then they expanded it to competing against public schools in general competitions. My brother did wrestling and I ran track and field. Once we turned 18, we aged out of that circuit, and by that time I was already thinking about college and moving on with my life.

Cooper: Where’d you go to college?

LaBreck: The University of Massachusetts Boston for undergraduate, and then Springfield College for graduate school. My undergraduate degree is in human services and my master’s is in rehabilitation counseling.

Cooper: Kind of fits.

LaBreck: (laughs) Fits perfectly. But, this was not the plan.

Cooper: A lot of people, myself included, have degrees that don’t match what we’re doing.

LaBreck: And your degree is in?

Cooper: My undergrad’s in biology. But my high school counselor told me I couldn’t go to college. I have ADHD, and my grades would go up and down depending on the teacher, if they really pulled me in or not. My counselor said, “Do you like welding?” And I said, “No, I want to go to college,” and she said, “You’re not going to college.” So I came out to California from New Jersey on my own, and got into a junior college to be able to improve my grades and get into a university. If a kid doesn’t have the temperament to say, “I’m not going to just take your word” or, “Let me see if there’s another answer out there,” they can be crushed.

LaBreck: It crushes a lot of people. It would have crushed me because I was not from a family that was educated. Neither of my parents completed high school, and they both had farming backgrounds. Both had to drop out of school to work in the household and on the farms. So they didn’t have an opportunity to experience education like we did. But they never lowered their expectations of what we could do. I think that made a terrific difference.

janet labreck lia martirosyan
Janet LaBreck and Lia Martirosyan

There was an old work program that was specifically for inner-city kids; it gave them an opportunity to have a paid summer job and gain experience. When I went to sign up for it, they said, “No, you can’t be in the program,” and I said, “Why not?” And they said, “Because you’ve got a vision problem.” I went back and told my mom, and she said, “Get in the car,” and we went back down to the office. She asked those people: “Who told her that she couldn’t work?” And they said, “Ma’am, she’s got a vision impairment.” And my mother said, “It doesn’t matter. There’s something she can do. You have other people who have other problems. I want her to have a summer job. She has a right to have a summer job.” So I did get a summer job with her advocacy and support.

Martirosyan: That’s critical.

LaBreck: That experience taught me to not take no for an answer. And even if you’re not successful, try it a different way. Just don’t give up on yourself. I think she really gave me that support and guidance that I needed to not accept low expectations, which was really helpful. When people feel that initial rejection, it can be life long. Even if you overcome it, you never forget it. That’s why words are so powerful; they can really impact action, and that’s one of the main reasons I wanted to become a counselor.

Cooper: We’re building another component to what we do, a volunteer and mentoring connection. We will be connecting ABILITY Corps and abilityJOBS members. The possibilities are exciting.

LaBreck: Absolutely. There are many states that run mentoring programs, particularly vocational rehabilitation programs. It’s absolutely critical to get to people when they’re as young as possible, to give them the support and guidance they need to be successful. Sometimes you need somebody to bounce information off of, or talk to when you’ve had a frustrating day. But most importantly, you need a model to show you how to move forward and have the life that you want. Nobody ever does it alone.

Cooper: Tell me about the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) that President Obama signed.

LaBreck: As you know, it’s the updated version of the Workforce Investment Act and addresses the skills that individuals with disabilities—really our entire workforce—need in order to move forward and be viewed as marketable. The emphasis now is to balance WIOA and the President’s job-driven training initiative. Balance has always been an issue: If you send a person to college for four years, they’ve been focusing on their education, but when they come out they haven’t necessarily acquired the job experience that they need. So we’re moving towards being able to provide the nation’s workforce with individuals who are educated, skilled and have acquired some experience through apprenticeships and internships. Apprenticeships are important because many employers need individuals with skills in specific areas. An apprenticeship can help them transition smoothly into fields that employers have identified as high-demand areas.

janet labreck eve hill
Janet and Eve Hill from the DOJ

Fortunately, individuals who get an education in Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) are going to be highly desirable as employees who have both the skills and the experience to seek out competitive integrated employment.

Cooper: Are you working with student disability centers in colleges to let them know that their students can find apprenticeships and internships?

LaBreck: Absolutely. While there are many internship programs that average high school students participate in, there’s been a barrier for individuals with disabilities. At the college level, it’s also important for individuals with disabilities to take on internships, seek out mentoring, and prepare a foundation for the future. And as a vocational rehabilitation program, it’s critical that we partner nationally with higher education and adult education programs so these partnerships lead to a new way of thinking.


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