Skip to Content

Creating Opportunities

Sheree Speaks (General Social Sciences, ’14) helps open doors for those with disabilities.



The job seekers at Willamette Valley Rehabilitation Center are eager to work, and very capable. But because they have intellectual or developmental disabilities, they don’t always get a chance to show an employer what they can do.

Sheree Speaks helps them get that opportunity.

Speaks, a 2014 graduate of general social sciences, is the community integration coordinator at the rehabilitation center in Lebanon, Oregon. She determines what kind of work would best allow her job candidates to succeed.

To answer that, Speaks has to know them inside and out. She learns about their interests and skills, and interviews their friends and family.

She gets a sense of their personalities and strengths, and recruits potential employers. The goal is to find a good match. Once she places a client in a job, she coaches them in how to round out their skills. For example, Sheree breaks down the work task specific to their learning style and sometimes uses easy-to-understand, on-the-job cues to help them work more independently. This might include a checklist or labels that serve as reminders.

It’s a lot of legwork, but the payoff comes when Speaks checks in on a client and sees them doing well at their job and enjoying themselves.

“It’s definitely rewarding and gratifying,” she said. “It’s amazing how much they can do.”

Students in the general social sciences major have four concentrations of core classes to choose from: applied economics and business; crime, law and society; globalization, environment and policy; and social studies teaching. Students then tailor the rest of their coursework around their focus. Speaks chose classes that focused on labor laws and working with people with disabilities.

A course on employment sociology proved to be a perfect foundation for her career—it covered jobs and the interaction among work groups in a range of settings.

“It helped me to understand the different dynamics of a workplace before I go in there,” Speaks said. “It gives me more awareness and understanding of how workplaces function, and I have the eyes and ears to see if it’s going to be a good fit for somebody.”

As a senior, she took additional classes on disabilities, learning about disabilities legislation, the history of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the effects of traumatic brain injuries.

Those classes are now formally organized as part of the Disabilities Studies Initiative, a multidisciplinary program which covers disabilities from perspectives such as law, architecture and literature.

Speaks began working at the rehabilitation center, which is in her hometown, the summer prior to her senior year. When her supervisor mentioned that a full-time, permanent opening would be coming up around the time of her graduation, she jumped.

Said Speaks: “It had all the qualities of what I wanted in a job—I got to work with and help people, there was a lot of potential for personal growth, and I always felt like the work I did had meaning.”

Math major Adrian Martushev and Econ major Eli Ackerman created an app that helps students connect ...
Curated by English professor Ben Saunders. Read the Forbes magazine coverage. 
Grad school fellowships awarded for research in sciences, social sciences and humanities
Sravya Tadepalli becomes only the third Duck in the past 26 years to achieve this rare honor.