People with Disabilities Hired to Support People with Disabilities

For months, she dressed herself. Alone in her Newport apartment, putting her clothes on took an exhausting five hours. With the morning now gone, she is dressed for the day. As she looks around, her dishes still lay dirty in the sink, breakfast needs to be made, the trash needs to be taken out and the floors should be vacuumed.

At this point, she is worn out and lacks the energy to do her job and daily tasks.

“I really couldn’t get a lot done because it just took so much out of me,” she said.

Just several months ago, this was a day in the life of Annette Bourbonniere.

Annette has a disability and uses a wheelchair. Everyday tasks would consume hours of her day. She tried to hire a Personal Care Assistant (PCA), but couldn’t find anyone for the job.


After months of trying to hire someone with no success, Annette had an idea. A program that could not only change her life, but others throughout Rhode Island.

She brought the idea to Andrea Rodrigues, the Director of Transition and Employment Services at Looking Upwards.

The concept? To train people with disabilities to support people with disabilities.

“People don’t think of other people with disabilities as capable of doing this kind of work,” said Annette. “Most people can work with the right supports. You hire the ability and you accommodate the disability.”

Andrea thought it was a great idea and went to work to make it possible. Shortly after, a grant from the Rhode Island Department of Labor and Training – in partnership with the Community Provider Network of Rhode Island – made the idea a reality. A new program was born.


The program provides customized training to people with disabilities to become PCAs. Looking Upwards provides services to adults and children with disabilities and was a natural fit to take the lead on the first-of-its-kind program.

The several-week-long program allows participants to receive information and then practice it hands-on. During the first couple of weeks, Emma Bartlett observed and learned.

“Emma was the shyest, quietest person for the first four or five weeks,” said Andrea.

Emma came into the program unsure. She didn’t know if being a PCA was for her or if it was something she would like.

Then, slowly but surely Emma not only opened up to the idea of being a PCA but started to find her voice.

“I have always liked helping people. It makes me happy,” said Emma.

Weeks later, Emma completed the program confidently and crushed her required internship. Now, Emma and Andrea started the process to find the right place for her to work. It became evident that a person in Newport would be a great fit.


“I really do enjoy working with Annette,” Emma says while standing in her kitchen. “Waking up in the morning is a bit tough, but when I get here I feel like everything is better.”

Emma now works for Annette every morning. She supports Annette with daily tasks that previously consumed her daily life. Now, Emma supports Annette by making the bed, getting breakfast ready, getting her showered and dressed, sweeping and taking out the trash.

“It was such a struggle before she came,” Annette says looking at Emma. “Now I feel like myself again.”

Emma says going through the program was rewarding and prepared her for the job.

“It brings a whole new perspective to disability,” Emma says. “Disability is a group that you can join at any time.”


For Emma, the PCA program was more than training. She says her needs were listened to and met.

“I feel like for the first time, someone listened to me,” Emma said to Andrea during a car ride.

Looking Upwards’ program is experiencing success and expanding. They already have people signed up for their next two training groups and have other disability agencies reaching out wanting to do more. The program is making its impact on Rhode Island.

“We have people calling up saying, ‘Hey, I hear you are producing PCAs, can you send me one?’” says Andrea.

“It’s working the way I thought it would. Thanks for proving me right,” Annette says with a laugh while looking at Emma and Andrea.

Annette says her relationship with Emma allows her to focus on what she is passionate about. Annette is a disability consultant and frequently advocates at the State House.

“I have confidence in her,” Annette says. “I feel a lot safer and am able to do the things that are important to me.”

While Annette has increased support, Emma has increased confidence. Speaking to the Community Provider Network, in a room full of people, she says her voice has been found.

“I definitely feel like you have helped me with my confidence,” Emma says while smiling at Annette.

Outside of work, Emma likes to draw and Annette has an idea for an illustrated story. The two may be working together to tell that story soon. But in the meantime, they are telling an important story of their own. Sometimes all it takes is two people, with the right support, to change a lot of lives.

To learn more about the PCA program, or to get involved, fill out our contact form. Please note that space is very limited.

Thank you to Annette, Emma, Andrea and Looking Upwards for allowing us to tell this story. 💚