Editor's Note: This article was originally published in the October 2010 issue of AccessWorld. Due to its still very relevant and timely information, it is being republished here.
As our nation recognizes and celebrates National Disability Employment Awareness Month, this is a great opportunity to offer AccessWorld readers who are currently a client in their state's vocational rehabilitation (VR) program and who may be looking toward employment some tips or advice for gaining the most from their VR experience.
Unfortunately, there is approximately a 70 percent unemployment or underemployment rate among blind and visually impaired adults. Regardless of the reasons for this high unemployment rate, people with vision loss, like everyone else, must take responsibility for preparing themselves for the highly competitive world of work. In addition to formal education, including high school and post-secondary education, people with disabilities, including those with vision loss, can often benefit tremendously from VR.
As you read this article, keep in mind all states handle vocational rehabilitation in different ways. You are encouraged to apply the information from the article to best support your particular situation and employment goals.
In order to get first-hand information, I spoke with AFB CareerConnect Associate Joe Strechay. Before joining AFB, Strechay worked for the Florida Department of Education, Division of Blind Services and has 5 years of experience in VR. He offered the following insight:
"You must remember, the VR counselor's job is not to find or give you a job; he or she is supposed to help prepare you and guide you toward opportunities for employment. It is important to realize your job search is your job, and gaining the most from your VR experience is part of that job. Job seeking is a job in and of itself. You should get up in the morning thinking about ways to find a job and then follow through. It's also very important to keep an open line of communication with your counselor. You may want to send him or her e-mails with updates on what you are doing to better prepare yourself for work or provide them with information about job leads you are pursuing. It is important for your counselor to see you are putting forth effort to find work."
Strechay explained that the road to finding fulfilling employment can be a long one, and even if challenging situations arise during your VR experience, you must remain professional and courteous. There may be instances when you want to say something out of frustration, but Strechay recommended holding back, "because a good working relationship with VR staff is a great asset."
Strechay encourages VR clients to remember the following:
Deadlines can be very important; if your VR counselor asks you to get documentation to him or her by a certain date, have it to them prior to that date.
Always follow up on requests to your VR counselor.
Do the research necessary for the jobs that interest you, and utilize all your resources. If you have access to the Internet, use it as a research tool.
Keep notes on your contacts with your VR counselor and the dates you submit information. Maintain a contact log specific to your VR case that includes when you filled out your application, received notice of being eligible for services, made your first contact after eligibility, and received your first service.
Keep copies of e-mails, letters, and other correspondence you receive from VR staff and potential employers.
Keep copies of any information, including your individual plan for employment (IPE), and keep it organized by date. This shows the services on your plan that you should be receiving.
The services a client receives should be based off an assessment or inventory of your needs, and your VR counselor will offer services that will help get you to work or back to work, Strechay said. In addition to career search and employment services, rehabilitation services will most likely be offered to improve your blindness skills, which may help increase your independence at work and at home.
"Most state VR agencies have a handbook or procedure guide that is often available online," Strechay noted. "VR counselors follow these procedures, and this should give you a better idea of what specific rules they follow. These are guidelines set by the state VR agency and will be different in each state. Services offered in one state may not be offered in another. States have different programs through their VR agency and may include programs aimed at children, teens (often called transition programs), seniors (often called independent living programs), vocational rehabilitation programs (employment training, including post-secondary training), or Blind Enterprisers' Program (as part of the Randolph Shepherd Act)."
Strechay also suggested that individuals who request equipment or technology ask for equipment that will be essential to their success in meeting a vocational goal, and to be prepared to justify why this piece of technology is needed. "Make sure you can get training on this technology or are already trained to use it. Ask for training if necessary," Strechay urged. "Most importantly, if at any time you don't understand something, ask questions."
Sheri Koch, program supervisor at the Blind & Visually Impaired Services for the West Virginia Division of Rehabilitation Services, also works extensively in VR. "The mission of the West Virginia Division of Rehabilitation Services is to enable and empower individuals with disabilities to work and live independently," Koch noted. "Our role in blind services is to work with the client with vision loss to provide all appropriate services to enable the individual to live and work with vision loss."
Individuals should investigate their VR options early, Koch said. "School-age individuals should start meeting with their rehabilitation counselor in the 10th or 11th grade to begin developing the client-counselor relationship. Counselors for the blind should start attending the client's IEP meetings at this same time to begin working on transition issues," Koch said. Self identification is important, especially for students with low vision, to ensure the school system provides appropriate accommodations for the student. "If vision loss occurs after the individual has completed public school," Koch remarked, "the sooner the connection between the counselor and prospective rehabilitation client can be made, the better."
"Generally, we begin working with individuals around age 16 or so, but there is no set limit on the maximum age as long as it is reasonable to consider employment for the person with vision loss," Koch said.
According to Koch, there are 10 important steps in the rehabilitation process:
1) An individual applies for rehabilitation services, and the specialty counselor for the blind in the individual's geographic area takes the application.
2) The counselor obtains information and documentation needed to verify the presence of a disability.
3) Eligibility for services is determined, which should be complete within 60 days of the application. An extension will be completed by the counselor if additional information is needed to determine eligibility.
4) The client participates in a variety of assessment activities designed to determine an appropriate vocational goal. Such activities may include a vocational evaluation, interest exploration, an evaluation of an individual's aptitude and achievement, an evaluation of the job market for the client's chosen goal, an assistive technology evaluation, a determination of whether compensatory blindness skills are needed, and a plan for specific training.
5) The counselor and client write an IPE uniquely tailored for that client's interests, abilities, training services, and placement.
6) The client receives services under an approved IPE.
7) The client maintains regular contact with the rehabilitation counselor during the delivery of services.
8) Upon completion of needed job-preparation services, the counselor works with the client to identify, interview for, and obtain employment.
9) Once the client is employed, the counselor works with the client and his or her employer to address such issues as accommodations needed to perform job tasks.
10) Once the client has been successfully employed for 90 days, and if no additional services are needed, the case is closed with the client being successfully rehabilitated.
According to Koch, "A wide array of services is available from the West Virginia Division of Rehabilitation Services, and these services are provided depending on the unique needs of and appropriateness for each client. Services include:
Rehabilitation training, such as college, blind compensatory skills training, vocational technical training, and job readiness training
Career planning services
Counseling and guidance
Support services, such as reader service, orientation, and mobility, and physical restoration services, such as glasses
Services to employers
"Throughout the rehabilitation process, the counselor works diligently with the client to help him or her reach a positive employment outcome," Koch said. "Conversely, the client must work equally hard to meet their responsibilities throughout this process. Clients are given a copy of the Department of Rehabilitation Services Rights and Responsibilities at the time of application."
In order to get the most out of VR, Koch recommended that clients put maximum effort and work into all phases of the rehabilitation program, from vocational training and job search efforts to actual employment. Also, clients should communicate with the counselor on a regular and consistent basis, not just when they need something.
Frequently, Koch said, the client considers only the vocational training and placement part of the rehabilitation process and ignores the fact that compensatory blindness skills are essential prior to taking on academic or vocational training, or job placement. Before planning college or vocational training, or before going for the job of a lifetime, VR clients should complete a self-inventory and ask themselves:
Do I have reading, writing, braille, and computer skills?
How do I study for and take tests?
Can I prepare for and get a job interview on my own?
Can I travel independently?
Do I have the skills to live independently: prepare meals, plan and maintain a budget, do laundry, etc.
Do I know how to use the technology my rehabilitation counselor plans to provide?
Do I have the social skills to work and interact well with others?
"A second mistake made by many clients is their lack of involvement and planning in their own rehabilitation process," Koch said. "In other words, they tell the counselor what they want, and sit back and wait on it. Take the time to know what you need and when you need it, to succeed in your rehabilitation process. Plan ahead and don't wait for a crisis to get you moving."
Koch believes a third mistake made by clients is a lack of realistic job planning. "Look to see who's doing what and where they're doing it," she said. "For instance, if you want to be a sea captain but don't want to leave your land-bound state, you may want to reconsider that career choice."
Along the same lines, she warned, "Don't sell yourself short! If you want to be something specific, explore to see if other blind people are doing what you want to do and how they do it. Check out the CareerConnect website and other employment sites for people with vision loss. Always remember that good compensatory blindness skills can knock down many barriers to employment."
Koch also urged clients and potential clients to "communicate, communicate, communicate! Talk to your counselor. Talk to your classmates. Talk to other people with vision loss. Talk to people who work."
"The Division of Rehabilitation Services can and does provide life-changing services to clients so that they can live and work independently," she stated. Working with the Division can be an opportunity of a lifetime, but with opportunity comes responsibility. "Play an active role in your rehabilitation process from beginning to end," Koch advised. "After all, it's your life!"