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Award winners earn People with Disabilities Awareness Day honors

Thursday, March 14, 2024

OKLAHOMA CITYOutstanding award winners were recognized last Tuesday by the Oklahoma Department of Rehabilitation Services as part of DRS’ 30th People with Disabilities Awareness Day.

More than 630 participants visited legislators at the State Capitol and attended a resource fair with 70 exhibitors followed by the award ceremony at the Oklahoma History Center.

Oklahoma Secretary of Education Nellie Tayloe Sanders was the keynote speaker at the awards ceremony.

Commission for Rehabilitation Services Vice Chair Theresa Flannery and Commissioner Janet Barresi presented the awards as DRS Executive Director Melinda Fruendt emceed the ceremony.

DRS recognized eleven award winners during People with Disabilities Awareness Day.

Senator Julia Kirt earned DRS’ Oklahoma Senator of the Year award for consistently learning about human impact issues and continued advocacy for and support of individuals with disabilities. Her leadership and policies to overcome or eliminate barriers  were mentioned in the award presentation.

As DRS’ Oklahoma Representative of the Year, Mark Lawson was recognized as a strong leader who creates harmony and teamwork while striving to create a better Oklahoma. He advocates for Oklahomans with disabilities by listening and then approaching policy issues from multiple points of view. A trusted leader with rapport among colleagues and external entities, he looking at problems as challenges to be overcome to eliminate barriers.

KOCO News 5’s morning team earned DRS’ Excellence in Communications award for  consistently sharing information about services for Oklahomans with disabilities. Last year, news anchors interviewed DRS experts about National Disability Employment Awareness Month, Braille literacy, Transition programs for youth, Deaf Awareness Week, employment services for jobseekers with disabilities and more. 

Vocational Rehabilitation Client of the Year Ethan Smith, who has autism, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, hearing loss and intellectual disabilities, enjoyed working as a sacker at Uptown Grocery in Edmond through DRS’ Transition’s BEST Step summer job training and employment program in summer 2023. He was hired by Store Manager Shane Kennedy on a permanent, part-time basis and starred in DRS’ new public service announcement.

Services for the Blind and Visually Impaired Client of the Year Elmer Norton has decreasing vision due to macular degeneration. He trained and became a licensed vendor with the SBVI’s Business Enterprise Program and now manages his own business, S&B Bistro, which includes a snack bar and 16 vending machines at the Capitol Complex where he provides a personal experience and goes above-and-beyond for customers and staff.  

Emileigh Jackson is a senior from Broken Arrow with a 3.91 grade point average who earned Oklahoma School for the Blind’s Student of Year award. She shows leadership skills in academics, cheerleading and Student Council and is a member of the OSB Jazz Band and captain of the Cheer Squad. Jackson demonstrates the ability to rise above challenges is a positive role model to other students.

Oklahoma School of the Deaf Student of Year Riley Newell from Pauls Valley has attended OSD since he was in 3rd grade.  He is president for the Class of 2025, is active in basketball and track and involved with the robotics team. Riley gave his homecoming king crown to a senior student with disabilities because it was his last chance to compete for that honor before graduation.

DRS recognized national CVS as the Business of the Year because of the company’s engagement in comprehensive training and workforce initiatives that empower DRS job seekers with disabilities.  CVS employees Duane Rohr and Karen Carothers were recognized for enlightening other businesses about hiring individuals with disabilities and involvement in workforce projects and representative at the state and national levels.

Oklahoma Human Services Developmental Disabilities Services won the State Agency Partner of the Year award for their longstanding partnership with DRS focused on independence, employment and enriched quality of life for Oklahomans with disabilities served by both agencies. As funding enabled DDs to move clients from their waiting list, both agencies collaborated on best practices to fill workforce vacancies.

DRS honored Central Oklahoma Workforce Innovation Board (COWIB) as the Workforce Partner of the Year for their integral role in the BEST STEP summer employment programs offered by DRS transition and OU Pre-Employment Transition Services (Pre-ETS) to student workers with disabilities. COWIB supported 12 counties, 68 participants and 166 employers with onboarding orientation, hourly wage tracking, reporting and hourly wage payment with funds provided by DRS.

. Oklahoma School for the Blind Principal Lynn Cragg earned a Lifetime Achievement Award  for 35 years of dedicated service in education and invaluable experience in serving students who are blind or visually impaired. An OSB teacher of the year in 2004-2005, Cragg’s proudest achievement is growing the Transition employment program and encouraging students to be independent and advocate for themselves.  She was honored for supporting teachers and students while holding them to high academic standards.

“Our People with Disabilities Awareness Day awards highlight the value of investing in Oklahomans with disabilities so they can overcome barriers to their educational and career goals,” Fruendt said after the event. “The individual services our clients receive level the playing field so qualified jobseekers who really want to work can become taxpaying citizens who no longer need government assistance.”

The Oklahoma Department of Rehabilitation Services served 96,178 people through employment, education and independent living training programs as well as determination of medical eligibility for Social Security disability benefits in 2023.

For more information, visit or phone 800-845-8476.


For more information

Jody Harlan, DRS Communications Director

Cell: 405-203-1318