Many people with disabilities throughout the United States have taken advantage of their state’s vocational rehabilitation services, with varying degrees of success. Vocational rehabilitation services — mandated under the Rehabilitation Act and provided through the states — are offered to individuals with disabilities who have a “physical or mental impairment that constitutes or results in a substantial barrier to employment, and requires VR services to prepare for, secure, retain or regain employment.”
Though many people learn about VR services while they’re in rehabilitation — and others through high school — becoming eligible doesn’t mean you’ll get all the services you want or need. Agreement on the type, scope and length of services has been the source of much conflict between individuals with disabilities and the VR agencies.
VR services can include: assessment, vocational counseling, guidance, transition services, vocational training, medical rehabilitation, rehabilitation technology, maintenance, transportation, interpreter services, readers, orientation and mobility for blind individuals, personal assistance services, supported employment services, and job placement assistance. Depending on individual and/or family financial resources, they may be asked to share in the cost.
Ideally, a VR counselor should help the individual determine employment goals and the path needed to reach those goals, which may include postsecondary education. VR may also assist with tuition, fees, books, room and board, transportation and maintenance, among other things.
Because of shrinking budgets at the federal and state levels and more people applying for services, however, many states are unable to serve all those who are eligible. When this happens, states are able to implement what is called an “order of selection,” giving priority to those with the most significant disabilities.
Virginia has been under an order of selection for eight years, says Linda Harris, coordinator for educational accessibility at Tidewater Community College. She oversees the services to more than 800 students with disabilities college-wide. “Many of the students who are wheelchair users are not likely to be eligible for VR today because of the order of selection. Not unless they have multiple disabilities requiring multiple services,” she says.
An order of selection doesn’t guarantee a good outcome, either. Ellis Torres-Acosta, retired Client Assistance Program advocate from Illinois, represented a 21-year-old man with cerebral palsy who used a power wheelchair and a communication board. His counselor was closing his case after she determined he was not employable. Torres-Acosta and CAP legal counsel appealed the decision. At the hearing, evidence was presented that showed the counselor had never even actually communicated with the client, since his communication board was never hooked up when they met. The counselor was ordered to keep the case open and continue to provide services to him. Torres-Acosta said it was “mind-boggling how this counselor was so intolerant of persons with significant disabilities and showed a total unwillingness to work with them.”
Rene Luna, community organizer at Access Living in Chicago, sees a lot of this intolerance. A study conducted by DePaul University found that most Chicago area VR clients were not getting good communication from their VR counselors and were not happy with the quality of services they received.
Adaptive Vans and Modifications: Hit or Miss
One of the big issues with the wheelchair-using population is vehicle purchase and modifications. Says Harris, “We used to do vehicle modifications, but that seems to be rare these days.” Yet, a VR client of Alabama’s agency who was living and working in Virginia was able to get a van purchased and modified through Alabama’s VR system.
Although New Hampshire is a small state, they get their share of vehicle modification issues, too. Bill Hagy, the director of the NH Client Assistance Program, told of a VR client who uses a manual wheelchair and drives a 15-year-old modified van. The van was badly in need of repair or replacement, and the client couldn’t afford a new one.
He bought a used van for $15,000, with New Hampshire’s VR agreeing to fund the modifications. Ride-Away, which sold him the van, began working with VR’s consultant engineer on the modifications. Hagy is dumbfounded as to what happened next. The work was stopped because the consultant engineer was not state-licensed, even though the VR agency had been using him for more than a decade!
So now, the state agency won’t allow the modifications to proceed, the client has a van he can’t use, and the VR agency is telling him he has to buy another van! The situation, as yet, remains unresolved.
In Florida, VR will only pay for accessible vehicle purchases or modifications in very limited circumstances. Often the client is required to show that they can’t use public transportation to perform their job or access the community before VR will pay for a vehicle or modification. Says Ann Robinson of Disability Rights Florida, “I had a van case that took over three years to resolve, even after a hearing decision in the client’s favor.”
Torres-Acosta recalls a case with a wheelchair user who had gotten a job and needed a van. With VR’s agreement to fund the modifications, the client purchased a van. VR then reneged on their agreement, stating that the minivan she bought was not approved for modifications. Torres-Acosta got involved and brokered a deal allowing the client to keep both the van and her job.
Many people with disabilities use VR agencies to pursue college degrees and advanced educations, with varying degrees of success.
Torres-Acosta says she sees a big difference from when she was hired as a coordinator back in 1979. “There was money then,” she says. “The VR agency was paying for people to go to college — tuition, fees, books, room and board, maintenance. They even helped pay for cars and car repairs.”
Taina Rodriguez, who has had Marfans syndrome since birth, has never seen that level of support. Rodriguez, who is a constituent advocate for a member of the U.S. Congress, applied to the Illinois Department of Rehabilitation Services to pursue a social work career in 2003. With VR providing tuition, fees and books, she attended school full-time at night and worked full-time during the day, earning Ds and Fs her first semester. She dropped to part-time school, and improved her grades to As and Bs. After she needed to take a semester off to get hip replacement surgery, VR closed her case.
“Even when I had a case, I feel like I did all the work,” says Rodriguez. “I literally drove the payment vouchers to the school because they kept getting lost. When they closed my case, I didn’t know I could appeal, so I just gave up.”
Megan O’Neil, 35-year-old para from a 1995 auto accident, has had a mixed bag of experiences with VR in a few states. Currently working as a consultant doing financial analysis and project development for both government and nonprofit organizations, she is also pursuing a doctorate in community economic development from Southern New Hampshire University.
While pursuing her bachelor’s and master’s degrees, VR paid $500 a semester plus the cost of her books at the University of Texas. Though she changed her major a few times, she always knew she wanted a doctorate. So, when she moved to Illinois and was accepted to a doctoral program, she applied for VR services. She was rejected. She appealed the rejection over the course of nearly two years. “I had a hard time explaining why a doctorate in community economic development was a desirable goal. I had to bring field research and statistics on positions I’d be qualified for.”
Although she’s had many counselors, O’Neil says she never had one that she thought really cared about her employment prospects. “They act as if it is their job to keep their money and find ways not to help you.”
Even though there are certainly counselors who have that perspective, there are others who have been more willing to help their clients reach successful employment outcomes.
Nipa Pandya, 34, born with spina bifida, is currently employed in health care management for a large Illinois hospital system. Pandya was a client of VR in 2003 through the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago. She and her job placement specialist discussed her career goals and skill set and developed a plan for her to obtain employment in the health care field. They engaged in mock interviewing and provided job search assistance for a period of about four months. She was encouraged by the job placement specialist to attend a job fair, where she made a connection with her current employer.
Angelo Perez, 44, is a T6-8 complete para from a gunshot injury 20 years ago. Perez began receiving VR services in 2007 and just earned a master’s in social work in 2012. While in school, Perez received assistance with tuition, fees, books, and transportation assistance in the form of a bus pass and parking pass. He found his own job, and today he is working at the University of Illinois at Chicago in the Disability Resource Center.
Perez says his relationship with his counselor was good. “He was very supportive of my goals, and we are still in touch even today, though he no longer works for [voc rehab].”
Earl Jordan, now employed by the U.S. Department of the Treasury, has a T12-L4 injury. He was a DRS client in the 1990s, when he received tuition, fees, books and room and board to attend Southern Illinois University to pursue a social work degree.
Assertiveness Is Crucial to Success
Although many have had at least some positive outcomes from their involvement with VR agencies, Ramon Canellada, accessibility program coordinator at Chicago’s Schwab Rehabilitation Hospital, finds the experiences largely negative. Many of his clients have had bad experiences whether attempting to apply, becoming eligible or deciding on a program of services. “They aren’t even talking about goals, achieving independence or self-sufficiency.”
Another problem, says Torres-Acosta, is the uneven access to and provision of benefits by the counselors. Some counselors give a client everything they ask for, virtually without question; others won’t give anything at all, holding the client responsible for knowing the rules and regulations when instead they should be the ones informing the client of what those rules, regulations and policies are.
Hsuan-Min Chou Guy, 42, agrees with Torres-Acosta. Chou, who had an anoxic brain injury, was a VR client for a short time in 2004-2005. His counselors assisted him in making sure his copywriting work was error free so he could pursue his goal of being a self-employed marketing copywriter, but he found that they continued to present him with job opportunities for which he was not qualified.
Not everyone finds the outlook so grim, however. Melissa Stockwell, above-knee amputee from Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2004, learned of VR while at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. With VR assistance, she returned to school to become a prosthetist, becoming a client first in Bethesda, Md., and then in Minnesota. “My counselor was great, very helpful,” she says. “I found my own job, but my counselor did follow up to ensure things were going well.”
Pat Maher, managing director of nAblement in Chicago, also sees some positives in the vocational rehabilitation system. “I think VR is becoming more aggressive in their approach, supporting clients’ career aspirations and better partnering with the private business community.”
The overarching thing to remember about VR, says Pandya, is this. “VR is one tool to help you achieve your career goals. I think it is important to be motivated, but also to be realistic. You need to work in partnership with your counselor to achieve your goals.”
Perez agrees. He says when becoming a VR client “it is important to be diligent, have your documentation in order, and have clearly stated goals toward finding a job.”
And O’Neil thinks long-term planning is crucial. “It is important to get everything you might possibly want outlined in the initial application. Don’t take no for an answer, and don’t expect VR to help you get a job.”