This year, vocational rehabilitation (VR) turns 100 against the backdrop of a worldwide pandemic and a national focus on equality. It is ironic that the VR program evolved in the midst of the Spanish flu a century ago and that the nation’s longest standing workforce program has been intimately involved in advocating for the civil rights and equality of individuals with disabilities for decades.

I look back at the majority of my life in which I have worked in vocational rehabilitation. This career path led to my current appointment as commissioner of the Virginia Department for Aging and Rehabilitative Services (DARS), and a personal and professional journey of serving individuals with disabilities.

Vocational rehabilitation’s roots stem from the Smith-Fess Act of 1920, also known as the Civilian Vocational Rehabilitation Act, and mainly served people with physical disabilities from industrial accidents. Over the next 50 years, few changes influenced VR as much as the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

Then, we saw the beginning of the modern era of vocational rehabilitation. We made a shift from serving people with only physical disabilities to serving people with severe disabilities, which expanded to include intellectual and invisible disabilities including mental illness, brain injury and those on the autism spectrum.

I met my colleague, Jim Rothrock, in the 1980s as he was traveling around the state advocating for the Virginians with Disabilities Act (VDA). He has worked beside me in vocational rehabilitation for many years. Many people — even in VR — do not realize that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) emerged from Virginia’s passage of the Virginians with Disabilities Act five years prior.

Rothrock was among a statewide coalition of disability rights advocates, represented by organizations such as Centers for Independent Living and Handicaps Unlimited of Virginia, who demonstrated this was not just an academic idea — this was a real-life problem. In 1981, they pressed gubernatorial candidates Marshall Coleman and Chuck Robb on their stances. Robb presented a plan, which later became the Virginians with Disabilities Act.

This month celebrates the 35th anniversary of the VDA and the 30th anniversary of the ADA. These acts are the centerpieces among the many milestones in the vocational rehabilitation program. They protect Virginians with disabilities against discrimination in employment, housing, education, voting, transportation and access to public accommodations.

The VDA and ADA caused a major shift in vocational rehabilitation. Previously, people with disabilities had to prove that they could go to work in order to get VR services from us. Now, we have to presume they are eligible to work and could benefit from our services. The onus is on us to provide them with the best tools and resources they need to go to work.

Vocational rehabilitation professionals also began recognizing people as individuals needing a tailored, written plan with strategies for their employment success. We started adapting the work environment using assistive technology, rehabilitation engineering and supported employment.

In 2014, the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) connected vocational rehabilitation and education into a single workforce system. The program requires us to help people, while they still are in school, to obtain workforce credentials and skills leading to meaningful career pathways. WIOA emphasizes connecting qualified workers who happen to have disabilities with high-demand jobs and industries.

Vocational rehabilitation’s history and mission have evolved to helping individuals with disabilities to find competitive, integrated employment and not just a job. DARS assistance is focused on their long-term success. Over the past 10 years, DARS has helped an average of 3,650 people with disabilities go to work each year.

The next steps for vocational rehabilitation success include continued collaboration with workforce and education systems, as well as other disability services agencies, to meet the needs of individuals in all areas of assistance and to improve employment outcomes.

Virginia was a leader in civil rights legislation and now continues to “lead on” in vocational rehabilitation. “Lead on VR” is the refrain used in a musical tribute to vocational rehabilitation, based on the words spoken by Justin Dart, a prominent figure in the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act. This national anthem of VR was rerecorded in honor of this 100-year celebration.

See video of “Lead on VR” performed by Richmond native George Dennehy, a professional musician, motivational speaker and former VR client of DARS at: https://bit.ly/LeadOnVR

Kathryn A. Hayfield is commissioner of the Virginia Department for Aging and Rehabilitative Services. Contact her at: dars@dars.virginia.gov

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