After he broke his back, Larry Rodriguez felt like he was mostly alone in the world.
He had fallen asleep behind the wheel of his truck coming home from work late one night, and the 1992 accident left him paralyzed below his waist.
When he had healed enough after the crash to get used to life in a wheelchair, Rodriguez returned to his job at Los Alamos National Laboratory. But he realized he couldn’t do the job the way he wanted to, so he “bowed out.” He tried to find work that he could perform from his rural home near Española.
“I was not doing anything. I was just feeling sorry for myself,” he said. “A lot of that time, I considered myself the Lone Ranger. I’m out here in the boonies in a wheelchair alone.”
Ten years later, Rodriguez still had not found another job. He was passed over for many opportunities, he said, because of his physical disability and because people made assumptions about his mental competency.
Rodriguez is one of hundreds of New Mexicans who are on the job now, thanks to a little-known law called the State Use Act. The rules direct state contracts to companies owned by those with disabilities and programs that hire people with disabilities. Rodriguez, 55, is now putting his computer-science degree to use as a technician at the Adelante Development Center in Albuquerque. He refurbishes computers for state agencies, including the state Department of Health.
Moving to Rio Rancho and re-entering the workforce in 2010, he said, made a huge difference in his general outlook.
“I talk to people. I’m going out and about. I don’t just sit around,” he said. “I’m using my head, solving problems with these computers.”
Rodriguez is among about 351 people who were employed through State Use contracts last year. Not everyone who’s tried to tap into the contracting plan has met success, however.
Susan, a Santa Fean who didn’t want her last name published, said she’s been signed up as a qualified member with the nonprofit program’s administrators since 2009 but has not found any work, even though she has a doctoral degree and a number of marketable skills, such as writing, editing and teaching. While the first nonprofit that administered the State Use Act, NM Abilities, communicated with her regularly about potential contracts, she said communication from the program’s current administrator, Horizons of New Mexico, has been nonexistent.
“While 351 jobs are more than nothing, I wonder if they amount to a whole drop of anything in anyone’s concept of a statewide bucket,” she said. “Sharing the information about what ‘scope of work’ is available just might allow for more participants to receive contracts with the state.
“Meanwhile, an entire segment of the workforce stands underused, discarded, excluded and waiting to contribute to and strengthen our interconnected, interdependent framework of society.”