Three years ago, my family and I were preparing for my high school graduation, which was mere days away- read more about graduation ceremonies for people with vision impairments here. I had an unexpected English final to study for, family was coming in from out of town, and we were trying to make sure my IEP was switched over to a 504 plan before graduation- read more about why to switch to a 504 plan before graduation here. On top of everything, my mom received a call from the Virginia Department of the Blind and Visually Impaired (DBVI) asking if I was interested in receiving vocational rehabilitation services, which we had no idea existed. Now, I tell every visually impaired student I know about these services. Today, I will be sharing what vocational rehabilitation services are and how students with vision impairments can benefit from them.
What is vocational rehabilitation?
Vocational rehabilitation is defined as "a process which enables persons with functional, psychological, developmental, cognitive and emotional impairments or health disabilities to overcome barriers to accessing, maintaining or returning to employment or other useful occupation." It ensures that people with disabilities have the skills and ability to enter the workforce and gain meaningful employment, remain employed, and advance in their jobs. Each state has their own vocational rehabilitation agency funded by the Vocational Rehabilitation Act of 1998 that supports people with disabilities, including vision impairment (a term that includes blindness and low vision). Some states may have one agency that serves people with all disabilities, like Maryland, while other states have a separate agency for people with vision impairment, like Virginia. It does not cost anything to receive services from this program.
Do I have to be on Social Security?
While vocational rehabilitation services can be used by people who receive Social Security or other government assistance, you don't have to be on Social Security in order to receive services. If needed, vocational rehabilitation agencies can help someone receive government benefits, but the ultimate goal of the program is to allow participants to be self-sufficient and not need government assistance. Some services that are provided are based on financial need, such as scholarships, but students can still receive a lot of benefits from the program that aren't necessarily linked to financial assistance.
Joining the program
I have had a case with DBVI since I was in ninth grade, though most of the services I received for my vision impairment up until I graduated in 2015 were provided to me through my school district (read more about ten lessons my TVI taught me here). Because of this, we had not received information about the vocational rehabilitation program, and were interested to see how it could benefit me as a college student. We scheduled an intake appointment for about a month later and I was determined to be eligible for services. Another friend who received services from DBVI in high school told me that their case manager had them start preparing to transition to this program during their senior year of high school, and they started receiving vocational rehabilitation services not long after graduation. Read more about why I enjoy having friends with vision impairments here.
The first thing my case manager suggested
The vocational rehabilitation services intake meeting took place inside a restaurant, and as my case manager saw me walk around, they noticed that I frequently bumped into objects, nearly walked into several walls, and relied on my mom as a human guide (read more about how to be a human guide here). They asked me how I cross the street when my mom isn't around, and my answer was that I listen for the cars. They did not like this answer, and they agreed with my mom that I would probably get hit by a Prius unless I improved my orientation and mobility skills, which led them to suggest that I start using a blindness cane. While I initially resisted, I eventually gave in and got myself a cane, and immediately noticed that I felt much more confident when travelling independently at my university. Read more about my cane in my post for White Cane Day 2016 here.
Developing an IPE
An Individualized Plan for Employment, also known as an IPE, is defined as "a written plan outlining an individual's vocational goal, and the services to be provided to reach the goal." In my case, my goal is to graduate from college with degrees in information technology and assistive technology, and to gain employment working for some type of company. My goal is somewhat vague because assistive technology and accessibility intersects with a variety of different fields of study and I don't want to limit myself in my choices. In order to fulfil this goal, I will need to have assistive technology so I can make my coursework accessible, and I will also need a disability services file at my university- read more about creating a disability services file here. My case manager and I developed my IPE in an afternoon and review it every year to see if there are any needed updates.
Receiving assistive technology
I had the awesome opportunity to shadow one of DBVI's assistive technology specialists one afternoon and explore several different devices. One of the devices I enjoyed the most was the E-Bot Pro, an unique video magnifier that had just been approved for use in standardized testing. However, the device was a bit expensive, costing a bit over $3000. Luckily, one of the components of my IPE was that I could get certain assistive technology devices free of charge, so long as I used them towards reaching my ultimate goal of graduating and gaining employment. Plus, if I was able to prove that i had been using the device to work towards my goal for twelve months, the device would then become mine and no longer be property of the state. I was super excited to learn about this program and receive one of my most-used devices for free- read more about the E-Bot Pro here. Some of my other friends use the program to receive laptops, specialized cell phones, and other technologies as well.
Since I am very proficient with technology and am studying assistive technology, I did not require any additional training on how to use devices. Another one of my friends needed a lot of assistance in learning how to use screen readers, magnification software, video magnifiers, or as they put it, "basically anything that requires electricity." Vocational rehabilitation services can help to provide training for using devices and software, or help participants find free training classes or other resources.
Orientation and mobility services
Remember how it was recommended that I start using a blindness cane when coming to college? My case manager was able to call the DBVI office near my university and have an orientation and mobility specialist come visit me to help me pick out a cane and learn my way around campus. While I didn't need much help learning how to navigate campus, I did appreciate having an O&M specialist help me pick out a blindness cane. The first cane I had ever picked out by myself was a pencil tip cane that went up to my waist and that frequently got stuck in sidewalk cracks- I didn't know there were other blindness canes out there. I will always be thankful for the O&M specialist that introduced me to my beloved Ambutech cane- read my love letter to my cane in my post celebrating two years with a cane here. And for more on how I learned campus so quickly, read my post on navigating campus here.
Using Protection and Advocacy organizations
At one point, an issue came up that required legal assistance from someone familiar with disability law. I will not go into specifics over what the situation was, but because I had a case with DBVI and also received vocational rehabilitation services, I was able to also receive free legal services from the Disability Law Center of Virginia, which helped me resolve the situation very quickly and peacefully. Every state has an organization like this, referred to as a Protection and Advocacy organization. Read more about receiving services from DLCV here.
With as many as 70% of people with vision impairments reporting unemployment, vocational rehabilitation services can help tremendously with empowering people with disabilities to gain employment, and I tell every student I meet about how they should take advantage of this program- read more about my policy idea to educate vision impaired students about transition resources, featured in the Roosevelt Institute's 10 Ideas policy journal, here.
To find out more about your state's program, run a web search and copy and paste "site:gov (your state name) vocational rehabilitation services vision impairment", adding the name of your state. I wish you the best of luck!