Vocational Rehab Program Puts Brothers to Work

May 15th, 2000 | By | Category: 11-4: All Our Children Are Special, Tribal College News

Jack and Billy Brien prove that good hearing is not necessary to be good mechanics. Photo by Karen Tuomala of the Turtle Mountain Star.

Billy and Jack Brien are both deaf, and it was difficult for them to find employment anywhere. On a reservation with an unemployment rate of 55 percent it was next to impossible. The rural North Dakota community has few interpreters or people who can use sign language, and few businesses have TTY machines. Thanks to Turtle Mountain Community College, however, they have run their own auto mechanic business on the reservation in North Dakota since 1993.

Now in their 40s, Billy and Jack had decided to become auto mechanics at an early age. “I was seven years old when I started messing with cars,” said Jack. Right after they graduated from high school at the School for the Deaf in Devils Lake, N.D., they enrolled in and graduated from auto mechanics schools. Jack specialized in diesel mechanics at Area Vocational Technical Institute in East Grand Forks, Minn., and Billy went to Lake Region Community College in Devils Lake.

Despite their education and their years of experience, it was difficult for them to find employment in an established garage due to communication difficulties. No employers knew sign language, and many were afraid to hire them out of ignorance. For many years, friends and neighbors brought their cars to the brothers’ homes to be repaired. Then, they heard about a new program located at the tribal college, the Turtle Mountain Chippewa Vocational Rehabilitation Project, which promised to help them obtain employment “by any means necessary.”

Because of their qualifications and their experience, it was apparent that starting their own business might offer the best option. They entered Turtle Mountain Community College’s Entrepreneurship Training and with the help of interpreters provided by the program, they learned to run a mock business, do their own books, write a business plan, obtain a license, and set up their own shop, Briens’ Mechanic Garage in Belcourt. Their business has been successful; sometimes they have a waiting list is a week long. To communicate, customers write down the problems they have with their vehicles.

The Turtle Mountain Vocational Rehabilitation project is one of 55 rehab projects on various Indian reservations located throughout the United States funded by the Rehabilitation Services Administration at the Department of Education through a special program for American Indians. The first cycle of the Turtle Mountain grant began in October 1993, and the program is now funded for an additional five years through 2003. Any recognized Indian tribe may apply. The director at Turtle Mountain Community College for the past eight years, Donna Thomas, believes the grant would benefit other tribal colleges. She said, “The program helps any Indian with a disability residing on the reservation to obtain employment. We serve the disabled, severely disabled, and most severely disabled with an individual plan designed specifically for them.” Thomas offered to provide technical assistance or to refer others to experts in their locations. To contact her, call 701/477-5998.

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