Accelify Blog

Vocational Rehabilitation and Transition Age Youth

May 12, 2016

How vocational rehabilitation in schools can improve postsecondary outcomes for students with disabilities.

Beginning this month, millions of students with disabilities will leave high school. Some will graduate with high school diplomas, both regular and alternative, some will drop out, and some students with the most severe disabilities will age out of the system.

Research not only shows that students with disabilities are significantly less likely to graduate from high school (averages vary from state to state, but hover nationally just above 60 percent, compared with an average graduation rate of 85 percent of general education students) but that those that do graduate are less likely to do things like go to college, have a career, and live independently in the first 6 years after graduation. Many individuals with disabilities who do manage to find employment end up underemployed and underpaid. Such difficulties are intensified for those with more severe disabilities.

This month we will be doing a weekly blog series exploring what constitutes a successful transition for students with disabilities leaving the educational system. We will take a close look at some of the challenges students, families, and service providers face, but also some of the efforts being made to improve postsecondary outcomes for students with disabilities.

To kick off our series, this week we will discuss vocational rehabilitation, also known as VR and the role it can play not just in supporting adults in finding employment after graduating from high school, but in preparing students for the challenges they may face in choosing a career path and acquiring the skills they will need to be successful in postsecondary life.

History of Vocational Rehabilitation

Vocational Rehabilitation began as a public program to support disabled veterans returning from World War I in preparing for and engaging in employment. Over the century, VR has evolved and expanded. The passage of the Rehab Act of 1973 (amended in 1974) expanded vocational services to better support individuals with developmental and intellectual disabilities. More recently, a national movement backed by the U.S. Department of Labor known as Employment First advocates for integrated employment for individuals with developmental and intellectual disabilities, supporting the notion that all people, regardless of their disability, should be seen as capable of employment.

VR is funded by a combination of state and local funds and is now the largest source of funding for adults and youth with disabilities to receive employment training services. VR services include assessment, vocational planning services, career counseling, job coaching and placement, vocational training and more. VR can begin as young as middle school and can continue all the way through adulthood. While VR does take place in high school it has traditionally been more focused on planning for and building up requisite skills necessary for a job, and less on focused job placement and the skills needed to actually go out and find a job (ie. job search, interviewing etc.) and has not been as accessible as some advocates and policymakers believe it should be.

Vocational Rehabilitation in Schools

Postsecondary outcomes for students with disabilities continue to hover significantly below outcomes for their general education peers. One of the key struggles young people with disabilities face, especially those with more severe disabilities and specifically students with autism, is the rocky period of transition between high school and adulthood, a period in which some youth with disabilities never successfully emerge.There are many reasons transition is particularly difficult for individuals with disabilities. One is simply the nature of the transition from a system of entitlements to eligibility, in which youth with disabilities and their families must begin seeking out services on their own rather than receiving them through the school system. Because vocational rehabilitation can be so crucial to success beyond high school, accessing VR services while in school can help families navigate the transition between high school and adulthood by bridging the gap between entitlement and eligibility and aid with the difficult task of securing employment or being successful in college. One of the main services offered to eligible students in high school is a vocational rehabilitation counselor who can help students navigate this transition.

But access to VR while still in school can have other benefits. In addition to a student’s transition plan, which begins in most states at the age of 14, VR counselors can attend IEP meetings and work with students and their families to develop an Individualized Plan for Employment (IPE). Unlike Transition plans, these plans go beyond simply teaching students skills, but actually lay out the steps they need to take to secure employment, including how to look for a job, how to apply, and how to interview etc. An IPE is also critical to helping students access VR services upon leaving high school. Despite its value to students while still in school, VR is largely still considered to be a service to be accessed post school, leaving many students to fend for themselves in navigating the difficult landscape of transition.

WIOA and Vocational Rehabilitation Policy

In tune with Employment First and related policies, there has been a general sea change in policy surrounding adults with disabilities. In 2014 President Obama signed the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) into law. The law recognizes that poor postsecondary outcomes for students with disabilities are a major problem and there is a critical need for more supports and services for students as they transition out of school.
WIOA includes several provisions to better bridge the transition between high school and adulthood for students with disabilities:

  • WIOA requires that states begin setting aside 15% of VR funding for services specifically designed to support students with disabilities in this transition from high school to adulthood
  • WIOA requires state agencies to make pre-employment transition services available to all students with disabilities
  • The law emphasizes the need for students, while still in high school, to practice employment skills and get real world work experience through services provided by VR
  • Finally, WIOA states that half of federally supported employment program funds must now go to providing youth with the most significant disabilities extended services beyond high school to support them in gaining employment

WIOA is an important step in creating equal employment opportunities for individuals with disabilities, and just one of a slew of other movements and policies that seek to improve postsecondary outcomes for students with disabilities. In our blog next week, we will look at some other legislation as well as specific examples of where VR has lead to success in schools.