Blog Post

Empowering Individuals with Disabilities to Maximize Employment

September 27, 2016

The Rehabilitation Services Administration (RSA) is a Federal agency housed within the U.S. Department of Education (ED)Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (OSERS). RSA administers a variety of programs that focus on empowering individuals with disabilities to maximize employment, economic self-sufficiency, independence, and inclusion and integration into society. RSA’s mission is to provide leadership and resources to assist State and other agencies in providing vocational rehabilitation (VR) and other services to individuals with disabilities to maximize their employment, independence, and integration into the community and the competitive labor market.

RSA administers the programs under these three statutes:

  1. Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Rehabilitation Act), as amended by title IV of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA),
  2. Helen Keller National Center for Youths and Adults Who are Deaf Blind Act, and
  3. Randolph-Sheppard Act.

RSA is appropriated approximately $3.3 billion each fiscal year to administer its various programs, including:

Of this appropriation, approximately $3.1 billion is devoted to the VR State grant program, under which funds are awarded to designated State VR agencies within each State to operate a comprehensive VR program.

On July 22, 2014, the President signed WIOA into law, which superseded the Workforce Investment Act of 1998 and amended the Rehabilitation Act, which is contained in title IV of WIOA. The passage of WIOA – a bipartisan and bicameral effort – marked the most significant reform of the Federal adult education and workforce development system in more than a decade and presented tremendous opportunities to change the way our systems operate. Through WIOA, we look forward to:

  • streamlining the way we do business in order to shape the nation’s employment and training system into one that continues to provide improved outcomes for all job seekers, workers, and employers;
  • supporting innovative strategies to keep pace with changing economic conditions;
  • improving collaboration between adult education, VR, and workforce development agencies at the Federal-, State-, and local-levels;
  • expanding training and employment opportunities for the millions of youth and adults served annually by our systems; and
  • making a difference for those individuals who have the greatest barriers to employment by offering them enhanced access and clear pathways to good jobs that provide family-sustaining wages.

We strongly believe that two of the core purposes of WIOA are to ensure that:

  • individuals who face barriers to employment, such as individuals with disabilities, receive the services and supports they need to acquire the skills necessary to obtain competitive integrated employment; and
  • employers receive the training, technical assistance, and other services they need to understand and tap into the full potential of individuals with disabilities in the workforce, for example through supported employment or customized employment. Through these efforts, we believe that individuals with disabilities, including those with the most significant disabilities, have more employment opportunities.

In implementing the amendments to the Rehabilitation Act, RSA is focusing on several key areas, including: work-based learning, employer engagement, career pathways for individuals with disabilities, transition services, including pre-employment transition services, technical assistance, and innovations.

In the two years since WIOA was signed into law, RSA has been working with its other Federal partners, with the State VR agencies, and with the business community. The focus has been on work-based learning, employer engagement, and career pathways for individuals with disabilities. Some examples include:

  • American Job Centers and VR agencies have an opportunity to collaborate in the development and provision of work-based learning experiences for students and youth with disabilities that will lead to outcomes in competitive integrated employment.
  • Work-based learning may include summer work programs’ short-term employment, apprenticeships, on-the-job-training, and internships.
  • Such experiences are particularly beneficial for students and youth with disabilities with limited work experience.
  • The youth programs under WIOA and VR agencies can coordinate services to ensure that actual work experiences are provided in integrated settings to the maximum extent possible.
  • This will provide students and youth with disabilities beneficial opportunities for job exploration, work-based learning, work readiness, and peer mentoring to prepare students and youth with disabilities for employment and careers aligned with in-demand industry sectors.
  • RSA has been focusing on employer engagement. Meeting employer needs through the hiring of qualified individuals with disabilities is a win-win for all.
  • RSA will continue to provide technical assistance and support to VR agencies to improve collaboration with business.
  • RSA is committed to learning more about innovative practices being implemented. We plan to share these practices with others as examples to consider.
  • I spent the last year conducting employer round table meetings with representatives of various business sectors to begin the process of more proactive employer engagement.
  • The goal was to provide employers with information to meet the diversity needs and promote an inclusive work environment.
  • We held four business roundtables with different sectors of the business workforce: Federal contracting, healthcare, banking, and information technology (IT).
  • The round table meetings resulted in recommendations and potential action steps for adequately preparing State VR agencies to connect individuals with disabilities with work experiences and competitive integrated employment opportunities over the next 10 years.
  • RSA also funded four Career Pathways for Individuals with Disabilities Model Demonstration grants to demonstrate promising practices in the use of career pathways in order to improve employment outcomes for individuals with disabilities.
  • Specifically, the projects are designed to promote State VR agency partnerships in the development of and the use of career pathways to help individuals with disabilities eligible for VR services, including youth with disabilities, to acquire marketable skills and recognized postsecondary credentials and secure competitive integrated employment in high–demand, high–quality occupations that will lead to economic self-sufficiency.

Transition services, including pre-employment transition services, to students and youth with disabilities now have greater emphasis because of the amendments to the Rehabilitation Act made by WIOA. As a result, RSA is working with stakeholders. Including business, to identify the key employment and transition-related outcomes. RSA is also reaching out to its colleagues at the Office of Special Education Programs to leverage their expertise and develop guidance to support improved transition of youth with disabilities from school into the workforce. RSA is also committed to stronger collaboration with the higher education community at both the 2- and 4-year levels.

Aligning with RSA’s mission to provide leadership and resources to grantees and stakeholders, RSA created a series of coordinated training and technical assistance centers (TACs) to assist state VR agencies and their partners in providing VR and other services to individuals with disabilities. Each TAC focuses its efforts on a specific set of topics designed to provide universal, targeted, and intensive technical assistance (TA) for the purpose of improving services to individuals with disabilities to maximize their employment, independence, and integration into the community and the competitive labor market in all sectors of employment. To date the TACs include:

Finally, RSA has awarded a $20 million grant to focus on an Automated Personalization Computing Project (APCP). The purpose of the APCP is to improve outcomes for individuals with disabilities by increasing access to information and communication technologies (ICT) through automatic personalization of needed assistive technology (AT). Under the APCP, an IT infrastructure would be created to allow users of ICT to store preferences in the cloud or other technology, which then would allow supported Internet–capable devices they are using to automatically run their preferred AT solutions. This IT infrastructure would ultimately provide better educational opportunities, ease transitions between school and the workplace, improve productivity in the workplace, and reduce costs for individuals, educators, and employers (such as businesses) with respect to the provision of accessing ICT.

All of these aspects of RSA’s work will benefit businesses of all sizes, from small businesses to large corporations. Some examples of benefits to businesses include opportunities for employers/businesses to:

  • receive training and technical assistance regarding the employment of individuals with disabilities, including disability awareness, and the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act of1990 and other employment-related laws;
  • provide work-based learning experiences such as internships, short-term employment, apprenticeships, and fellowships;
  • recruit qualified applicants who are individuals with disabilities;
  • train employees who are individuals with disabilities;
  • become aware of disability-related obstacles to continued employment;
  • receive consultation, technical assistance, and support related to workplace accommodations, assistive technology, and workplace access;
  • work with VR agencies to recruit, job match, hire, and retain qualified individuals with disabilities; and
  • learn how to utilize available financial support for hiring or accommodating individuals with disabilities.

Hiring, promoting, and retaining individuals with disabilities will increase the diversity of your workforce.

This is an exciting time for VR and the public workforce system. It is truly a time for innovation and opportunity. It is a time of increased awareness of individuals with barriers to employment, including individuals with disabilities, increased collaboration across all the partners in the workforce system, including businesses and employers of all sizes, and increased expectations for outcomes in competitive integrated employment. Join in the excitement.

To learn more about this important topic, join Janet LaBreck and additional thought leaders for Diversity Best Practices’ upcoming web seminar Disabilities in the Workplace: New Research, Best Practices and Moving Forward on October 27, from 12:00-1:30pm EST. This is a members only event. To learn more and to register click here.