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Unemployment in CoMo: Justin Cobb

After surviving a fall that left him partially paralyzed, Justin Cobb starts to get his life back on track

Brenden Neville

Justin Cobb prepares lunch inside his Columbia apartment. He has been unemployed since a September 2007 landscaping accident that cracked vertebrae in his neck and back and also multiple ribs. The accident left him partially paralyzed.

April 29, 2010 | 12:00 a.m. CST

Squinting through the lenses of his oval-shaped glasses, 30-year-old Justin Cobb stares determinedly at a computer screen. He’s working on a job seeker’s most dreaded document — his résumé.

“How do you spell ‘efficient’?” he asks, slowly twisting his upper body to the left to look at Job Point intern Suke Benson. When he was home-schooled in Perry as a child, Cobb excelled in math and art — English, not so much.

Cobb sits with his bird Allen in his Columbia apartment. He turns to his artwork ...

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“E-F-F-I-C-I-E-N-T,” she says in a sweet, soft voice, her eyes fixated on the letters as they gradually materialize on the screen. Her intent interest shows she wants this résumé to be as perfect as possible. One typo, and Cobb can kiss an opportunity goodbye.

He punches down the period key on the keyboard sitting in his lap. His résumé, which he started at his last office visit (he goes every Thursday), is almost complete. Cobb smiles at the objective section of his résumé, which explains why he’s been out of work since 2007. “I don’t want them to think I’ve just been slacking off,” he says to Benson.

She nods understandingly, “Yeah, that makes a lot more sense now.”

His objective reads: “I was injured while working my landscaping business in September 2007. It left me paralyzed and in a wheelchair. Through the Vocational Rehab, I’ve acquired a standing wheelchair that allows me to be more independent and more efficient. I’m looking for part-time work in public relations with a progressive work environment.”

This was not the situation Cobb, an aspiring artist, would have painted for himself. Looking back, he wishes he had stayed in bed that fateful fall morning. Although landscaping was never his dream job, the pay wasn’t too shabby, and he could work on his own terms because he owned Cobb’s Pro Lawn Care, which is now out of business. He hates any work that requires him to act like a “robot.”

Needing to make a quick buck, he jumped out of the comfort of his covers and headed off to a client’s to cut down a tree branch. “It was $600 for only five hours,” he says. “I was like, ‘Yeah! Why not?’”

Perched 25 feet above the ground, Cobb struggled to keep his balance as he fought not only with the branch but also with his fiancée on the grass below. She worked with him at the time. “I remember being on the ladder, holding a chainsaw, thinking, ‘This is stupid; this is stupid,’” he says. The last thing he recalls was the plummeting branch in his peripheral vision. Then everything changed.

Cobb’s fall from the ladder paralyzed him instantly, cracking a vertebra in his neck, fracturing one in his back and breaking five of his ribs. His doctors say the only thing that saved him was the metal cage in his back, the result of a previous motorcycle accident; he hit a cow that wandered onto the highway.

But that good news wasn’t good enough. In the midst of his injury, he was left to fend for himself — his fiancée called off their wedding, which was only two weeks away, ending their relationship. “It was probably for the best, but I wish it hadn’t happened like that,” Cobb says.

With medical expenses nearing $400,000 and a need to make ends meet, Cobb has been in search of work since the accident. Medicaid helps with some of the medical costs, and disability payments cover basics such as rent and electricity, but they are not nearly enough for general living expenses. His parents help with his financial obligations as well.

Cobb began job hunting on his own by visiting various businesses, such as Michaels, Hobby Lobby, Walmart and hardware stores. He sought positions such as door greeter or other customer service jobs. His wheelchair restricted him to seated work. It restrained even his upper-body movement, eliminating his ability to perform what many know as simple duties — things such as working a cash register.

Cobb says his disability plays a large role in how people treat him. He’s stunned by what some have said to him — the worst being one potential employer who told him to come back when he could walk again. “People have said to me more than once things like, ‘Are you OK little buddy?’” he says. “I want to be like, ‘I’m not your buddy,’ and run over their foot.”

The first six months after the accident were especially challenging. Winter weather made it hard to get around outside. Cobb couldn’t wheel himself to Paratransit stops in the snow; plus it was getting expensive to pay for rides. But he kept diligently looking for employment.

Finally frustrated by the resounding “No’s,” Cobb enlisted the help of employment agencies, beginning with Alternative Community Training, a nonprofit organization that helps individuals with disabilities find work. Immediately, he felt uncomfortable. The group’s protocol assessments focus on all types of disabilities, so he wasn’t being assessed solely on his physical limitations — his mental health was being analyzed, too.

“You get put in a category,” he says of being disabled. “Not to sound negative, but it’s hard being put out there and put under the category of mentally disabled. I’m not mentally disabled — (I’m) just unable to stand at the moment.”

Few opportunities arose from the assessments, none of which were helpful for Cobb, so he declined. “Since I wouldn’t accept them, they kind of put me on the back burner,” he says.

By summer 2008, Cobb fell into a depression — he was discouraged, frustrated, still jobless and sick of searching. He was on what he calls his “lazy day” schedule: sleeping until 1 p.m. instead of waking up at his “productive time,” 6 or 7 a.m. “For a while, I slept all the time,” he says. “But you can only sleep for so long before your dreams start mixing with your reality.”

To deal with reality, he turned to his artwork — using his creativity to express his emotions. Some of his paintings were dark and brooding. Into the Unknown, a black, red and orange painting in which stick figures walk in line toward a mysterious black hole, is one of them. “I painted it while intoxicated,” he says. “You look like you’re the next in line. It freaks me out sometimes. I used to have to hang it differently.” It hangs crooked (purposely because it draws attention) on a wall in his apartment.

Soon after painting Into the Unknown, a new portrait joined the ranks of his apartment gallery — a picture of Cobb’s face cropped onto the chiseled body of a magazine ad underwear model. His sense of humor trumped his sorrow; the funny photo reminded him to go after his goals of losing weight and gaining strength to walk again.

His first step toward improvement started with volunteering for the Columbia Health Care Center as a Bingo caller and a muralist painting patients’ rooms.

Three months ago, he decided to give the job hunt another go. This time Cobb turned to Job Point and Vocational Rehab, hoping the nonprofit companies could act as a foot in the door to land him an interview. Thus far, Cobb feels they’ve been doing their part. As part of the state-run program assistance, Vocational Rehab has already changed Cobb’s life: After a referral from Job Point, the company purchased Cobb a $16,000 wheelchair that allows him to stand. “Anything it takes to get them the job, we’ll do,” Job Point Job Developer Matthew Harris says.

Both Cobb and Job Point employees believe the new chair will open up a lot of job opportunities, particularly a consultant job he has in the works with the Standing Company, the makers of his new wheelchair. If he does get the position, he will be traveling to local hospitals and rehabilitation centers to showcase the high tech wheelchairs.

Today, confidence shines through his ear-to-ear grin as Cobb eagerly shows off his standing chair to everyone at the Job Point office. His legs shake, somewhat violently, as he pulls a lever to prop himself up, a process he describes as a “good sort of pain.”

“I can actually stand up and look you in the eye and shake your hand,” he says while standing and extending a hand out to Harris. “I feel like a real person again.”

A real person. Cobb is still a real person with a real résumé, and he remembers again: Typos matter. “Oh man,” he says to Benson. “It says ‘munch.’ Not ‘mulch.’”

Cobb prints it again. Perfect. And now — he waits.

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