Advocates who have been following the sad saga of the Congress's nearly twelve-year-long failure to reauthorize the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, as amended, are breathing a sigh of relief today as news of a bipartisan agreement among law makers in both the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives reached their disbelieving ears. As part of the so-called workforce investment system, the federal/state partnership to provide vocational and pre-vocational rehabilitative services to people with disabilities, which is funded and described in the Rehab Act, has been held hostage to a protracted legislative process which, until today, could not resolve differences both about the structure and function of the broader workforce system and the terms and conditions of VR services themselves.
While this massive legislative package announced today requires further analysis, advocates will be most interested to learn that the bill will not, repeat, will not move management of the VR system to the U.S. Department of Labor as had been previously proposed but will leave its management to the Department of Education. Likewise, management of the Independent Living Services for Older Individuals who are Blind (Chapter 2/Older Blind) program remains at Education. However, to satisfy the demands of the independent living community, other independent living services, along with NIDRR (the rehab research agency) and Assistive Technology Act project management, will transfer to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
The compromise announced today does not eliminate the ability of certain employers to pay their employees with the most significant disabilities subminimum wages but nevertheless does try to somewhat delineate more precise conditions that must be met, such as the specific type of training and information that need to be offered to such employees, before wages below the federal minimum can be paid.
One relatively small but yet very significant piece of the compromise announced today has to do with supporting the preparation of professionals meeting the unique needs of VR clients who are blind or visually impaired. As early as 2002 when discussions about the Rehab Act's reauthorization by Congress officially began, AFB persuaded congressional champions at that time to include legislative language in Rehab reauthorization to raise the profile of, and thereby increase federal investment in, preparation of vision rehab professionals by the Education Department. This language was later updated by AFB in 2011 and again in 2013 to specifically increase the priority of and explicit support for professionals in the Vision Rehabilitation Therapy, Orientation and Mobility, and Low Vision Therapy disciplines per se. AFB is pleased to see that this important language has survived the Rehab reauthorization rollercoaster, and once the compromise legislation announced today becomes law, we encourage our field to actively make the most of these new provisions to ensure that grater federal investment is made in the preparation of our professionals so that VR clients with vision loss receive more and better services.
One final note about the Chapter 2 program: the compromise legislation announced today would direct a small but useful fraction of federal dollars appropriated to pay for independent living services offered to older individuals with vision loss to technical assistance and related initiatives for both public and private service providers. This is a new provision, though of course long advocated throughout the length of this Rehab re-authorization process, which will hopefully result in higher quality services and better preparedness on the part of professionals and agencies.
As of now, there is no action required or urged of advocates. Staff on Capitol Hill are asking that this newly-minted compromise be allowed to work its way through the remainder of this heretofore frustrating legislative labyrinth and to let the ink dry on this extensive piece of proposed legislation. Both policy makers and staff on the Hill are hoping for prompt action in both houses of Congress so that the President can sign this comprehensive bill this year. With luck and what remains of the disability community's patience, we may very well finally reach "case closure" on amendment and approval of the Rehabilitation Act!