There is growing anecdotal evidence of a lack of awareness within the autism community of available vocational rehabilitation (employment) services. Among those who do know about these services, there is also evidence of some misinformation and skepticism.
Vocational rehabilitation is a nationwide network of state agencies whose goal is to help individuals with physical or mental disabilities achieve career-oriented jobs (with competitive pay) and live independently in their community. These agencies provide or coordinate supports including counseling, medical and psychological services, job coaching, higher education, job training, job placement and other individualized services – anything to help the individual get and maintain employment. Research has consistently shown that for every dollar spent helping people with disabilities get employed and live independently, federal, state, and local governments get back $7 in taxes and savings on other disability services.
Each state has a state VR agency and most cities and towns have at least one office of trained VR counselors. Nationally, VR agencies employ more than 9,000 staff. These offices, in turn, pay for contracted support services from local community rehabilitation service providers to achieve the goal of helping people with disabilities get jobs. There are at least 8,000 of these providers nationwide, employing approximately 160,000 staff. Each year the VR system helps more than 200,000 people with disabilities find jobs.
This network is overseen by the Rehabilitation Services Administration, within the U.S. Department of Education, which monitors, advises, and partially funds the agencies.
The legislative basis for the VR system is the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. This act stands, with the ADA and IDEA, as a cornerstone of U.S. federal policy toward people with disability. In particular, the Rehabilitation Act states, in part:
“Disability is a natural part of the human experience and in no way diminishes the right of individuals to live independently; enjoy self-determination; make choices; contribute to society; pursue meaningful careers; and enjoy full inclusion and integration in the economic, political, social, cultural, and educational mainstream of American society”
“The goals of the Nation properly include the goal of providing individuals with disabilities with the tools necessary to make informed choices and decisions; and achieve equality of opportunity, full inclusion and integration in society, employment, independent living, and economic and social self-sufficiency, for such individuals.”
It is the policy of RSA and VR that: All individuals with disabilities are presumed to be able to work, no matter how significant their disability. It is a matter of having appropriate supports. The appropriate outcome for a person with a disability is employment in a career-oriented job; matching the person’s interests and abilities, in a community setting, with non-disabled co-workers, and with competitive pay. Anything less is not considered a successful VR service outcome.
The Vocational Rehabilitation Process
Eligibility – VR services are available to any U.S. citizen with a significant disability who wants to work but finds opportunities limited because of a disability and who requires VR services to become employed. A significant disability is one which impedes activities of daily life and creates employment barriers.
Vocational Counseling and Guidance – Each person with a disability (the client) is paired with a vocational counselor. Together they identify a career goal for the person. RSA regulations require that this goal be a community-based job (preferably career-oriented) with a competitive salary, in a setting working with people without disabilities. The VR system does not believe that sheltered workshops are acceptable employment outcomes.
Based on the career goal, the counselor and client select the services the client needs to reach this goal. To determine what services the client needs, the counselor talks with the client about abilities, interests, past experiences, concerns, and accommodation needs. Medical and other documentation is important, but the key source of information is conversations with the client and/or client’s family.
VR Services – Together the client and counselor decide which supports and services the client needs to reach the career goal. The specific services a client receives will vary widely, depending on the client’s career goal and personal support needs. The chosen services and career goal become the Individualized Plan for Employment (IPE). The IPE is not complete until the client signs his or her name to indicate that she or he 1) was an active participant in its creation and 2) agrees with the services, responsibilities, and goal listed. This insures that clients have a central and determining voice in the type of services they receive. The IPE is a working document which can be revised later if necessary.
Types of VR Services include any goods or services needed to help the client find employment. As mentioned, services can vary widely depending on individual circumstances, community resources, and career preferences. Services can include, but are not limited to:
Assessment Services – These focus on a person’s abilities and support needs, not on barriers. This is NOT a qualifying assessment for services, but a clarifying tool. This is also NOT a career filtering tool – assessment results clarify the support needs a particular career choice might require.
Counseling and Guidance – This is the ongoing relationship between the client and counselor. As a team they review evaluation results and develop a realistic employment plan.
Treatment – In some instances, specific medical treatment (such as surgery or counseling) may increase a person’s career potential. This is NOT for ongoing medical needs, but a focused intervention to improve employment options.
Job Training and Education – This covers skill acquisition, including post-secondary education, to improve employment potential (see discussion below).
Other Support Services – This addresses secondary needs key to job retention, including development of transportation options, buying tools or equipment, or support for independent living.
Job Placement – These are services to help a client locate job opportunities and become hired. It can include specific job hunting skills (interviewing, resume writing, etc.) but can also include services from job placement specialists who market a client to local employers.
Supported Employment Including Job Coaching – (see discussion below)
Independent Living Services – This includes referral to local community resources, help with self-advocacy, help with money management, etc.
Assistive Technology Services – Some clients need a specific device or piece of equipment to improve employment options.
More on Vocational Rehabilitation Services
Supported Employment – Ideally, supported employment (the use of an on-site job coach to help a client navigate job tasks and responsibilities) should be a temporary, transitional support which fades out. However, a few individuals need supported employment on a long-term basis. Because the goal of VR services is the achievement of employment, there must be a cut-off point at which the client is determined to be securely employed and services are complete (usually 90 days after employment). Funding for supported employment services is time limited and long-term job support must come from another funding source.
Ideally, the counselor and client will address this issue during the planning stage and identify other sources for supported employment on a long-term basis, if needed. This is an ongoing area of attention from RSA.
Training and Education – These are some of the most common VR services. There is no time limit on how long the training may take, as long there is reasonable progress toward the employment goal. Training options include short-term training such as specific job skills courses or training at a vocational technical college, or advanced degrees at a university. VR frequently covers the cost of short-term training, and a significant portion of advanced degrees. This is not an open-ended scholarship, but does have a flexible time scale as long as activities are focused on the career goal.
Self-Employment Services – There are several subtypes of self-employment, including small business owner, contract worker, and equipment ownership.
Transition Services – Many new clients for VR agencies are young adults completing high school. All VR agencies have extensive outreach efforts for transition planning and services.
Protection and Advocacy
Like all service networks, VR agencies are not perfect and do not always achieve their own ideals, despite their best efforts. All state VR agencies are required to have an internal appeals process. If any client feels his or her counselor is denying appropriate, necessary VR services, these processes can provide a review by an external “impartial hearing officer.” Federal regulations also require each state to have a Client Assistance Program (CAP) to advise and support VR clients who need help with advocacy. These CAP offices provide advice on rights and responsibilities under state and federal regulations and policies. CAP offices can refer clients to appropriate service agencies or, if necessary, to legal services. Some CAP offices can provide direct legal representation.
Many state VR agencies are recognizing a need for more informed services for clients with autism. Our Autism Works project at the University of Missouri is working to achieve this with interested agencies. The autism community can help by actively seeking VR services (when appropriate) and vigorously engaging state agencies in dialogue about service needs.
Dr. Scott Standifer is an Adjunct Assistant Professor for the Disability Policy & Studies office (DPS) at the University of Missouri. He is the author of Adult Autism & Employment: A guide for vocational rehabilitation professionals, and of the online Handbook of Disabilities. He was an organizer of the Autism Works National Conference, March 3 & 4, 2011, and will present on Current Trends in Autism Employment at the Autism Intervention Conference held by The Thompson Center for Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders, April 15, 2011. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or through his website www.dps.missouri.edu/Autism.html.