Vocational Rehabilitation Services for Students with Disabilities

Authors: Tammy Winkenwerder, VR Transition Program Specialist, Texas Workforce Commission

Keywords: Vocational Rehabilitation, disability, Texas Workforce Commission, Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, pre-employment transition services.

Abstract: In this article, Ms. Winkenwerder describes the impact of Vocational Rehabilitation in her life and the federal changes that will create new opportunities for students with disabilities.

Think back to the events that made the most impression on you as a child or adolescent. We know the experiences in the early years of life shape our lives as adults. I have a physical disability, and one of my memories is of the time when I was about 14 and the school district arranged for a vocational rehabilitation (VR) counselor to visit my parents and me. She told us about opportunities and ways that I could do things to be independent, like drive a car! After this meeting, my parents were still apprehensive about letting go, but I remember feeling motivated to pursue more of life. Like most of my peers, I wanted to be a part of society and live a life of independence, but there were many skills to learn before I could get there. Everyone must learn those skills before transitioning from high school to adult life. However, those of us who have a disability need extra support and training from people who are passionate about helping us succeed and who recognize innovation and opportunity.

The people who support young people with disabilities can be parents, family, friends, teachers, and institutions that comprise school administrators and government programs such as the Texas Workforce Commission’s (TWC) VR program. The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 went into effect the year I was born, and it is the reason I am an independent adult. The Act was amended when on July 22, 2014, President Obama signed the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) into law. WIOA is designed to help job seekers get access to employment, training, education, and support services so they can succeed in the labor market by providing skilled workers for employers. WIOA also oversees state VR programs; it made some substantial changes to focus more services and funding on the beginning of the VR continuum, when students with disabilities are thinking of possible careers and transitioning to life outside of high school. Our government leaders have realized the importance of providing opportunity and innovation early in a person’s life.

WIOA focuses on the importance of preparing young people with disabilities for employment not only by having VR programs invest more funding into transition services but also by encouraging VR programs to develop partnerships with education agencies, school districts, workforce boards, employers, colleges, and universities. Through these partnerships and services, young people with disabilities can receive five areas of training: job exploration counseling, work-based learning experiences, counseling on opportunities for enrollment in comprehensive transition or postsecondary educational programs, workplace readiness training, and self-advocacy. These areas of training are known as pre-employment transition services (Pre-ETS).

Pre-ETS activities are for students with disabilities who are between the ages of 14 to 22 and who are eligible for or receiving special education services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) or Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. WIOA also allows VR programs to provide Pre-ETS to students who meet IDEA and Section 504 criteria but have not been determined eligible for or even applied for VR services, which is something new to VR state programs. If the student will need disability-related services that are outside of Pre-ETS, then he or she will have to apply to the VR program. However, the most important factor regarding Pre-ETS is that the five areas of training mentioned above must occur before the student leaves the school system so that he or she will have an optimal transition to postsecondary life.

The upcoming issues of the Tx SenseAbilities newsletter will include articles that focus on each Pre-ETS area, but an overview of each Pre-ETS activity might be helpful. The five required Pre-ETS activities are described below:

  • Job exploration counseling—Helps students explore job opportunities to foster motivation and promote informed decision making about career goals.
  • Work-based learning experiences—Provides students with actual work situations to give them the knowledge and skills that will help them connect school experiences to real-life work activities and future career opportunities.
  • Counseling on opportunities for postsecondary educational programs—Informs students of postsecondary education programs and requirements and assists students in deciding which path is most appropriate for them to facilitate success.
  • Workplace readiness training—Helps students develop work readiness skills, sometimes known as soft skills, which are a set of skills and behaviors that are necessary for any job. This will help the student identify skills he or she has as well as those that need some additional work so that the student may succeed in employment.
  • Self-advocacy—Trains students with disabilities to advocate for themselves, including discussing disabilities and accommodations that are needed. Students with disabilities also learn to express their strengths and the contributions that they can make to the community.

I think that what is most important about WIOA is its ability to create opportunity for students with disabilities before they leave the school system. Parents, teachers, VR professionals, and the students themselves can seek out Pre-ETS activities that can be significant no matter how large or small the scale. As I said at the beginning of this article, that first meeting with a VR counselor made an impression on me that is still with me today. Sometimes it takes a team of supporters and organizations to make success happen. The result is a person who has the same opportunities as those without disabilities and a life that he or she envisioned, despite disabilities. I encourage you, if you are a student with disability, to call a VR office and see what doors will open for you.

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