VOCATIONAL REHABILITATION UPDATE
New Federal Policy Requires State VR Agencies to Provide Assistance that Will Maximize Employment
On August 19, 1997, the federal Rehabilitation Services Administration (RSA) issued a Policy Directive, RSA-PD-97-04, which governs State Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) agencies. This new directive requires State VR agencies to approve vocational goals and the services to meet these goals to enable persons with disabilities to maximize their employment potential. This directive represents a dramatic shift in RSA policy and should be publicized to all who may be affected by it.
In an earlier issue of AT Advocate and in the article we published through Clearinghouse Review, we discussed State VR agencies as funding sources for assistive technology (AT). In those articles, we specifically discussed the concept of maximization of employability. See November 1996 issue of AT Advocate, pp. 31-32; James R. Sheldon, Jr. and Ronald M. Hager, Funding Assistive Technology for Persons with Disabilities: The Availability of Assistive Technology Through Medicaid, Public School Special Education Programs, and State Vocational Rehabilitation Agencies, 31 CLEARINGHOUSE REVIEW 50, 65 (May-June 1997). We pointed out that both the statutory language in Title I of the Rehabilitation Act and the legislative history to Title I require state VR agencies to provide assistance that will enable individuals with disabilities to "maximize employment, economic self-sufficiency, independence, and inclusion and integration into society." 29 U.S.C. § 701(b)(1); see also S. Rep. No. 388, 99th Cong., 2d Sess. 5 (1986). (We refer the reader to these two articles for a discussion of case law on the maximization issue, most of which is favorable to the individual seeking VR agency sponsorship.)
RSA is that branch of the United States Department of Education which oversees the delivery of VR services under Title I of the Rehabilitation Act. It also issues regulations to implement the requirements in Title I. See 34 C.F.R. Part 361 (final VR regulations which appeared in February 11, 1997 issue of the Federal Register). RSA also periodically issues Policy Directives which provide extensive interpretations of the mandates of the relevant law and regulations.
The August 1997 Policy Directive concerns the "employment goal" for an individual with a disability. It rescinds a 1980 policy and describes the standard for determining an employment goal under Title I. RSA's 1980 policy, 1505-PQ-100-A, identified "suitable employment" as the standard for determining an appropriate vocational goal for an individual with a disability. In that policy and in an earlier, 1978 policy (1505-PQ-100), RSA described "suitable employment" as "reasonable good entry level work an individual can satisfactorily perform."
The 1978 and 1980 policies, which are now rescinded, lead many state VR agencies to drastically limit the employment goals that would be approved under an individualized written rehabilitation program (IWRP). Under the old policies, many State VR agencies would not approve goals, in most instances, if they required advanced degrees. Many agencies would not approve the training and other services needed to allow a person to maximize employment potential. This, in turn, lead to the litigation which we discussed in the earlier articles.
RSA's clear change in policy is best expressed in the following quote from the August 1997 Policy Directive:
"The guidance provided through this Policy Directive is intended to correct the misperception that achievement of an employment goal under Title I of the Act can be equated with becoming employed at any job. As indicated above, the State VR Services program is not intended solely to place individuals with disabilities in entry-level jobs, but rather to assist eligible individuals to obtain employment that is appropriate given their unique strengths, resources, priorities, concerns, abilities, and capabilities. The extent to which State units should assist eligible individuals to advance in their careers through the provision of VR services depends upon whether the individual has achieved employment that is consistent with this standard."
This new directive clarifies that cost or the extent of VR services an individual may need to achieve a particular employment goal should not be considered in identifying the goal in the IWRP. So, for example, an individual who has the capability of becoming a lawyer or a certified public accountant should be sponsored to pursue that goal even if it will require extensive funding of assistive technology (AT) to allow the person to work in the typical office setting. The new directive also clarifies that a person who is currently employed will, in appropriate cases, be eligible for VR services to allow for "career advancement" or "upward mobility." This could allow, for example, an individual who is blind and employed in a low-paying job answering telephones to pursue the education needed to pursue a better position within the same setting or a separate career as a teacher or rehabilitation counselor. This could certainly involve the need for AT to meet educational or job-related requirements.
The new Policy Directive emphasizes that the State VR agency must still determine whether the individual's career choice is consistent with his or her vocational aptitude. In an effort to meet the maximization of employability requirements, however, state agencies are encouraged to make these determinations through a comprehensive assessment (such as a trial placement in a real work setting) or by establishing short-term objectives in the IWRP (such as a trial semester in college). In many cases, these trial work or educational placements should be accompanied by the availability of AT as a means of overcoming a disability-related deficit.
We at the AT Advocacy Project believe that RSA's new policy is simply a clear statement of what has been the law for many years. However, since this new directive represents a dramatic departure from previous RSA policy, it is important that information about the new directive be disseminated to individuals with disabilities and their advocates. Copies of the new policy directive are available through the AT Advocacy Project (call Wilma at 716-847-0655 ext. 271) and can be downloaded by clicking here.
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