by Doug Powell, chair of the Rehabilitation Issues Task Force
The more I think about this subject, the longer the article gets ... so I guess I’d better stop thinking and start writing. We are a task force, not a committee enshrined in the constitution and bylaws, because our work is supposed to be somewhat temporary in nature. So, when everyone who wants a job gets one, keeps it, and moves up the organizational chart just like our sighted counterparts, and when people who lose their vision and choose not to continue to work can get the equipment and training to continue to live independent, fulfilling, and participatory lives in their communities, this task force will disappear into the sunset. Is anyone holding their breath until that happens? Hopefully not.
Until that happens, we will continue to gather, evaluate, and suggest policy to the ACB officers and board of directors, and we will gather, evaluate, and disseminate information and suggestions for advocacy at the state and local levels with and to our affiliates. I have been honored to work with many intelligent, thoughtful, dedicated, and powerful activists who have given their time, knowledge, and effort to our work. We welcome new contributors to the task force or as a “stakeholder” on our monthly calls and our projects.
The Basics … Not as Simple as It Looks
“Get a job.” Sounds pretty simple, doesn’t it? But as I was thinking about how to approach this subject from a rehabilitation perspective, and what could go wrong, I realized it might be useful to unpack the components of what that involves. Before we even think about resumes, interviews, and the nitty gritty details, we need:
- A person motivated to work — passion or calling to a career, puritan ethic, or desperation to pay next month’s rent;
- Job opportunities — how is the job market evolving through automation and other factors?;
- Career background, skills, and experience;
- Employer and job seeker finding each other;
- Employer/employee compatibility — location, accessibility, benefits, etc.; and
Success or failure at any point contributes to the difference between 70% employment or 70% unemployment for people who are blind or have low vision.
About four years ago, Congress passed the Workforce Innovation and Opportunities Act (WIOA). It has been the federal government’s attempt to address the failure of rehabilitation agencies to prepare us to get meaningful work. When I served on Virginia’s State Rehabilitation Council, before WIOA, the focus was on the third bullet point above and mostly on skills. The percentage of cases that our agency serving blind and low-vision clients closed with a successful job placement was around 50%. WIOA is designed to have the Department of Labor, the Department of Health and Human Services, and the Department of Education Rehabilitation Services Administration work together holistically to cover more of the bullet list and improve outcomes. It took another year or two after the law was passed before implementing regulations could be promulgated, and since then, the rehabilitation service providers have been trying to set up and administer the new programs mandated under the regulations.
What Did WIOA Change?
Here are the highlights of what changed:
- Coordination of services between Labor, Education, Rehabilitation, and independent living center agencies to provide services
- Mandated 15% of agency funding to be spent on pre-employment transition services to high-school students
- Elimination of the “homemaker” closure
- Stricter definition of a successful job placement
All of these sound like they are positive directions for progress. But they come with consequences that ACB is unwilling to let stand. Plus, the new law doesn’t answer any of the questions we had before about how to bridge the gaps that have held people who are blind or have low vision out of the workforce. A mostly positive framework has been erected, but it remains to be seen whether the implementation will improve the system.
And we still haven’t addressed how to help people who don’t have employment as their goal, but still need services to maintain their standards of living in their communities.
What Is the Task Force Fighting For?
We are fighting for effective services that will help people who are blind or have low vision achieve the goals they set for themselves. And those goals should be as lofty as they can be — without regard for their visual acuity. But to get there, we need your help. My dream, as chair, is to have a representative from each state affiliate on our monthly call. That representative would also be on their State Rehabilitation Council, which oversees what the agency is doing and makes recommendations for more effective service provision. With a broad network of our affiliates, we would be able to track effectiveness of state programs, share best practices for advocating for better outcomes, and keep the ACB leadership current on whether our policies and advocacy at the federal level are current and relevant. Right now, we have more questions than I could enumerate here. We will need to have input from the states whether the agencies are fulfilling the promises of fuller employment in jobs that we want to be doing, and independent, skilled, and participating members of the community regardless of their employment status. We’ll continue to do the best that we can, but as the saying goes, “The more the merrier.”
For those of you who would like to join the Rehabilitation Issues Task Force to help us in our work, contact me via email, [email protected], for more information. Or, if you would like to be on the task force, contact Kim Charlson via email, [email protected]. To stay informed about rehabilitation and employment, and interact with other ACB members on those issues, sign up on the rehab-stakeholders list from http://www.acblists.org/mailman/listinfo.
Want more information about the Rehabilitation Services Administration (RSA) or the Workforce Innovation and Opportunities Act (WIOA)? Go to https://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/osers/rsa/index.html.
Tools for job seekers can be found at https://aphcareerconnect.org/.
The National Research and Training Center (NRTC) at Mississippi State University has research, products and programs on various aspects of life for people who are blind or have low vision; visit https://www.blind.msstate.edu/.