In July the President signed a rare piece of bipartisan legislation intended to increase employment opportunities for Americans with disabilities. Then, over two weeks this month the U.S. Department of Labor held an online dialog with state government officials to discuss how to improve employment services for this population because, as Kathy Martinez, U.S. Assistant Secretary of Labor for Disability Employment – who herself has a disability – said, “State governments can play a critical role.”
In New York State, free, comprehensive, employment evaluation and training services are available to people with disabilities through Adult Career and Continuing Education Services-Vocational Rehabilitation (ACCES-VR), a division of the State Education Department. The agency has counselors and offers orientation and other services in each borough of New York City; we recently visited the Downtown Brooklyn office to learn more about how they work with people with disabilities.
Whether your disability interrupted a successful career or you’ve never been employed, whether you have a particular job in mind or need help figuring out the possibilities – if you have the desire and stamina to work full- or part-time, assistance is available.
“Some people initially come in to see us with no vocational goal; others have multiple vocational goals. There’s no right or wrong,” explained one ACCES-VR counselor. “We work with them to clarify their objectives.”
ACCES-VR’s Director of Counseling, Veronica Rose-Craig added, “Everything is individualized. What may work for one person may not work for another.”
What about my benefits?
One thing that keeps some people with disabilities from seeking employment is fear of losing their Medicaid, SSI or other important benefits. Because employment evaluation and training is a big commitment of time and resources, it’s wise to explore how working may affect your benefits before starting the process.
ACCES-VR Statewide Transition Senior Vocational Rehabilitation, Cuquita Douglas, told us, “The Social Security Administration is continually trying to find ways to encourage people to go back to work, but it can be overwhelming trying to understand all of the information they offer, so it’s good to get expert benefits counseling.”
“The fear of losing benefits is very real and valid,” a counselor added. “People need to understand the ins and outs of the system so that they can make an informed decision. We have an agency that will do benefits counseling with them. They can also get counseling themselves by calling the Brooklyn Center for Independence of the Disabled.”
What to expect
Like anyone seeking employment these days, a person with a disability is advised to approach the effort as a full time job.
“The people who are most successful,” said Ms. Rose-Craig, “understand that this is a process, often a long one, and have the determination and perseverance to stick with it.”
The first step in that process is to call the ACCES-VR office in your borough and ask about their orientation and application process. The application packet includes questions designed to identify what has kept you from working, and provide the agency with information about your disability and your employment history, if applicable. For Brooklyn ACCES-VR’s intake process, you call for an orientation appointment and then are scheduled for an intake interview when the application packet is completed. If you decide you are ready and eligible for services, you will be assigned a vocational rehabilitation counselor who will stay with you throughout the evaluation, training and employment search until you obtain a job.
The work begins with evaluation
All of the services the state can offer must be linked to a vocational goal and supported by an evaluation that the goal is realistic.
“We work with rehabilitation centers, such as NYU Rusk, that do a comprehensive vocational evaluation,” an ACCES-VR counselor explained. “For two or three weeks, depending upon the person’s individual plan, they attend all-day sessions where they are given standardized pieces of jobs to do. This gives the counselors a broad picture of aptitudes, interests, skills and abilities across the board, as well as stamina.
“For example, if someone is not able to use their hands they may need to use a pointer stick or the tip of a pencil to work. We understand they may need assistive technology to do things but we are looking at attitude, work behaviors, timeliness and responsibility.
“At the end of the evaluation period we meet and discuss what we learned and where to go from there. For some consumers that may be a specific job training program; for others it may be college or other types of classes. Very often what’s recommended is what’s called a work readiness experience – a placement in a real work site monitored by a rehabilitation counselor and a supervisor, usually for about eight weeks.
“Assuming that they move through the process successfully, next they receive services to develop their job hunting skills, which can include developing a resume, practice answering interview questions, and deciding how to disclose their disability. They are also eligible for assistive technology, home modification, van modification and other services, but only once they have a very clear vocational goal.”
Success takes time
None of this is easy – it’s not supposed to be – but it can definitely pay off.
Another ACCES-VR counselor cited one young man she worked with who had a spinal cord injury and used a wheelchair due to a diving accident who came in wanting to become a doctor. It took years but he achieved his goal. “He went to school and his internship with an aide and the state paid to modify his van. After attending NYU and NYU Medical School, paid for in part by the state, he became a radiologist.”
“Another woman came to us from NYU Rusk with a debilitating disease that affected her speech and her mobility. We had her participate in an evaluation and she was found to be a candidate for a kind of training that is more hands-on. She really persevered and followed up. She was very determined. I recently closed her case and she is working part-time doing office work.”
“Our job is to work with you and ask, ‘Is this realistic, is this achievable, is this a viable vocational goal?’ And that’s where the discussion begins, Ms. Rose-Craig emphasized. “We really want to make sure that the consumer is ready for this, and that’s why we do the evaluation.”
“Endurance is important,” the ACCES-VR counselor added. “And being able to manage your aides because if you are attending the evaluation and training you may need them to go with you, depending upon what your disability is.
“We work with many people and if people aren’t following through on their own then we will follow up but it is essentially their responsibility to follow through. And they need to recognize that not every job is for every person.”
Ms. Douglas added, “This takes time. We will assist you throughout the entire process – but it is a process – and you have to commit yourself.”