Our Future as Vocational Rehabilitation Professionals
I recently had the opportunity to provide the keynote speech for the Arkansas Rehabilitation Counselor’s Professional Association of Arkansas (RCPAA). The talk was titled Rehabilitation Counseling – Looking Back: Moving Forward. The future for vocational rehabilitation professionals can be very bright if we choose it to be. Here are some of the highlights of that conversation.

Looking Back
Although there was prior legislation for worker’s compensation and veteran’s services, vocational rehabilitation began in earnest with the passage of the Smith-Fess Act in 1920. That first year resulted in over 20,000 people being served and more than 600 people being closed as successfully employed. Since that time several key pieces of legislation have been passed to reinforce the importance of the program and the role for vocational rehabilitation professionals. This legislation has also impacted the lives of people with disabilities. This has resulted in literally millions of people obtaining employment and independence. Although not a complete list, key legislation has included the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (the first act pushing for civil rights in the community of people with disabilities), 1986 Amendments (supported employment), 1992 Amendments (Individualized Plans for Employment and strengthened informed choice), 1998 Amendments (comprehensive system of personnel development and increased partnership with other agencies for increased employment), The Americans With Disability Act (ADA)(civil rights for people with disabilities), Individuals With Disabilities Education Acts (comprehensive services and fairness for students with disabilities), the Ticket-to-Work Act (employment for people with disabilities receiving SSDI/SSI benefits), and the Workforce Innovation and Opportunities Act (WIOA)(increased quality employment and pre-employment transition services).

Each of these legislative actions have positively affected the lives of people with disabilities and the role of vocational rehabilitation professionals; however, problems remain that continue to interfere with full inclusion and employment. Discrimination remains a fact of life for people with disabilities. If you are a person with a disability, you are twice as likely to be unemployed as a person without disabilities. Only 24.5% of people with disabilities are employed compared to 67.6 person of people without disabilities being employed. Because of employment and income restrictions, if you are a person on Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) or Supplemental Security Income (SSI), you are likely to face poverty across your lifetime to meet the requirements to retain your benefits. Having said this, it is not all doom and gloom. Exciting opportunities exist for rehabilitation professionals to make a difference and for people with disabilities to obtain full inclusion in employment and true independence.

Recent Trends and Expectations
I began working with people with disabilities in 1977, just four years after the passage of the Rehabilitation Act. I made my first job placement in 1983. It was a transitional employment placement for an individual who was diagnosed with schizophrenia. He had wanted to be a cook his entire adult life. His first placement lasted one shift. He was excited by his success because he got his first paycheck. A few cents of FICA were taken out of the check, and he was excited because he was now a contributor. It took several more placements before he got a lasting job. Each time he lasted a little longer. In the same way he had to go through several iterations to get it right, I think we as rehabilitation professionals are in the same place. Each new piece of legislation gives us the chance to improve and get it right.

Work matters. Employment can change our lives. It gives us choice and hope. It gives us a reason to get up and get dressed. It gives us a reason to leave the house. It allows us to go out to eat, go to the movies, own a car, and buy a house. Work gives us power. The role of the rehabilitation counselor is to partner with the person being served as a full partner to find quality employment and independence. Myles Horton once said (paraphrased) “the people we serve are the experts of their lives, they are the experts of their experience, they are a full partner in driving the process.” This continues to be true. The current climate in the vocational rehabilitation field expects, both agencies and partners, particularly post-secondary partners, and community rehabilitation partners, to play an important role in assuring quality employment and full independence.

Many crusty old curmudgeons, I among them, have raised concerns about changes in legislation diminishing standards of rehabilitation counselors as well as credentialing bodies seeming to diminish to critical roles of rehabilitation counselors. We have seen disturbing trends that affect our practice. Practitioners are concerned about the lowering of standards to become a rehabilitation counselor. Counselors also report leaving the field because of pay issues and too much paperwork, and not enough counseling time. There seems to be more time spent on record keeping and counting data than at any point in our history. Counselors report frustration with Licensed Practicing Counselors (LPCs) getting greater recognition than practicing rehabilitation counselors. They feel like there is a lowered perception of their worth. However, this is not the way it must be. WIOA provides some exceptional opportunities and the vision we can create can make for a dynamic difference in the future.

Moving Forward – What is there to be excited about?
There is substantial reason for excitement about the future of the vocational rehabilitation program, and in particular vocational rehabilitation professionals. It does; however, requires us to refocus on the basics: quality employment and independence. These are the heart of vocational rehabilitation practice and are the things we control. Our purpose is work – real work.

One of the roles I have in my current job is to read all federal monitoring reports. Highly exciting – grin. I have read every report since 2016. What do these reports tell us? Numbers are down – way down, applications, plans, closures, and overall performance. Even with positive trends in 2023, numbers are still a concern. I know it’s not popular to talk about numbers, but numbers represent people. Numbers represent funding. Numbers represent congressional support. Who controls these numbers? In a sense…we do.

What else do the reports tell us? WIOA offers us some of our greatest opportunity yet to make a real difference. If you read the law – it expects quality jobs and quality benefits. It expects vocational rehabilitation professionals to create the greatest opportunities for the best jobs…not just quick jobs, not just any job, not just food and filth jobs, and not just jobs to get one person closed to serve another person. This is why the law has created expectations for post-secondary training and measurable skills gains and taking as long as needed to get the best jobs. This is why staff are measured at second and fourth quarter after closure. Is the person  still in the job? Who influences this? – We do!

If your read the monitoring reports, the Rehabilitation Services Administration is making several things clear. First, making a difference early matters. This is why there is pre-employment transition services. The call is for every student with a disability in every school to be served. Second, the expectation is that we invest in post-secondary education. This means career technical programs, community college, bachelor’s programs, even graduate programs. Expectations are to spend more money on training, and more money on quality supported employment and customized employment. Third, they are demanding that state vocational rehabilitation agencies spend more money on consumers to get these quality jobs. Finally, they are demanding agencies spend money to keep their programs fully staffed and to have qualified staff serving consumers. Who has the greatest influence over most of these expectations? We do.

Congress expects improved performance, or they will question the need for the program. Vocational rehabilitation case management software has improved our ability to keep track of performance and respond to federal tracking requirements. Vocational rehabilitation practitioners influence training and performance and are the key to opening the door for success, but we must accept some things. Vocational rehabilitation professionals are responsible to get the numbers and make a difference for the most people. Vocational rehabilitation professionals are the experts who can create improved, high-quality performance. Case management software helps reflect these performance improvements. Vocational rehabilitation counselors, techs, supervisors, and partners make the difference. Innovation rests with us.

Moving Forward – What are our actions?
In our profession, numbers have always mattered. This is perhaps true now more than ever before. Why? First, the clinical practice of rehabilitation counseling is one of the few forms of counseling (maybe the only one) where we know when we are done. Everything done can be counted and reflects success. Second, vocational rehabilitation agencies are regulated federally and in individual states. This means reporting is done to both the Rehabilitation Services Administration and to state legislatures. To ensure funding, things get counted. For counselors, techs, and community partners this is always a challenge. Yet it is the thing we control, and it is the area where we can be innovative. How do we proceed in this environment? It can be the most exciting time in our profession if we can make a difference.

First, as rehabilitation professionals it is important to become involved in several areas. We need to have great business and employer partnerships. We need to become involved in influencing employment law. We need to shout form the mountain tops about the difference that we make. We need to highlight our specialized skills in career counseling, medical knowledge, diversity of counseling skills, vocational planning and budgeting skills, and our community relationship skills. These skills enable us to influence vocational rehabilitation practice.

Next, electronic case management systems and electronic health records (EHR)(no matter what system you use) reflect our performance. As counselors and community partners, we must be effective in our use of these systems. We can be unhappy with the time spent facing the computer screen, or we can get really good at it. The better and more efficient we are, the more consumers we serve, the better our numbers look to all parties. Leaders choosing great cloud-based case management software can improve the success of their agency and their counselors. Stakeholders including rehabilitation professionals working in community rehabilitation programs are encouraged to find cloud based electronic case management software or web based EHR software that improve their efficiencies and highlight their performance.

Finally, we need to develop leadership skills among the people who are a part of day-to-day rehabilitation practice. If we do this, we can become the next generation of leaders in agencies. This can influence legislation, budgets, and clinical practice. This will also allow a push for better salaries and more qualified professionals.

WIOA is a call for exceptional employment. RSA is demanding we honor the call to meet this challenge. The time is now to make a difference. Mary Oliver, in her poem Skunk Cabbage wrote, “what blazes the trail is not necessarily pretty.” Yes, there have been some growing pains with changes in legislation and credentialling bodies, but collectively we can make a difference. I would suggest this difference is worth it to the people you serve, but maybe it is even more important to you as a rehabilitation professional.