The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Rehabilitation Act) is landmark legislation, which changed the course of services and expanded the rights of individuals with disabilities in our nation. It set out the purpose, policy and principles that have continued to guide its implementation over the past 50 years.
Congress acknowledged that disability is a natural part of the human experience that in no way diminishes the right of millions of Americans with disabilities, including those with the most significant disabilities, to live independently; enjoy self-determination; make choices; contribute to society; pursue meaningful careers; and enjoy full inclusion and integration in the economic, political, social, cultural and educational mainstream of American society.
Today, the purposes of the Rehabilitation Act continue to include—
- Empowerment of individuals with disabilities to maximize employment, economic self-sufficiency, independence, and inclusion and integration into society, through statewide workforce development systems established under the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA), which we are also celebrating this month, that include, as integral components, comprehensive and coordinated state-of-the-art programs of vocational rehabilitation;
- Maximization of opportunities for individuals with disabilities, including individuals with significant and most significant disabilities, for competitive integrated employment;
- Leadership by the federal government in promoting the employment of individuals with disabilities and in assisting states and providers of services in fulfilling the aspirations of such individuals with disabilities for employment and independent living;
- Increased employment opportunities and outcomes for individuals with disabilities through meaningful input by employers and vocational rehabilitation service providers on successful and prospective employment and placement strategies; and
- Fully expanded opportunities for postsecondary success for youth with disabilities and students with disabilities who are transitioning from receipt of special education services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (20 U.S.C. 1400 et seq.) and receipt of services under section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act.
Since the passage of the Rehabilitation Act, the United States has maintained a policy that all programs, projects, and activities receiving assistance under the Rehabilitation Act shall be carried out in a manner consistent with the principles of—
- Respect for individual dignity, personal responsibility, self-determination and pursuit of meaningful careers, based on informed choice, of individuals with disabilities;
- Respect for the privacy, rights and equal access (including the use of accessible formats), of the individuals;
- Inclusion, integration and full participation of the individuals;
- Support for the involvement of an individual’s representative if an individual with a disability requests, desires or needs such support; and
- Support for individual and systemic advocacy and community involvement.
Embracing federal policy and the foundational principles of the Rehabilitation Act, the vocational rehabilitation (VR) and supported employment programs administered by the Department of Education’s Rehabilitation Services Administration (RSA), have assisted millions of individuals with disabilities to plan and create their own destinies by ensuring that services are individualized to meet their own unique needs and by guaranteeing the opportunity to exercise informed choice in all aspects of their VR journey including services, providers and employment goals.
Today, with nearly $4 billion in annual funding, the VR program serves more than a million individuals with disabilities annually, half of whom are youth.
So, what has occurred over the Rehabilitation Act’s 50-year history? Some of the most significant high points include—
- Individuals with the most significant disabilities are being served through both the VR and supported employment programs to achieve competitive integrated employment, including supported employment, and customized employment;
- Individualized services and informed choice have become cornerstones in the VR process, empowering individuals with disabilities to make informed decisions along with their VR counselors on their individualized employment plans and in all aspects of their VR journey and the determination of their employment goals;
- Competitive integrated employment has been defined as the goal of the VR and supported employment programs, removing segregated employment and employment at subminimum wage from the realm of authorized outcomes under the Rehabilitation Act and ensuring full participation in the full and equitable economic life of their communities;
- WIOA introduced pre-employment transition services to ensure that students with disabilities have access to the initial services that can assist them in exploring the world of work and raising their expectations as they begin the transition from school to postsecondary education or employment;
- Vocational opportunities and choices have expanded exponentially with the advancements in technology; the opportunities for remote and hybrid work environments; the focus on science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) careers under WIOA; support for postsecondary education, apprenticeships and career pathways; and
- Partnerships with workforce development, employers, state and federal agencies, educational agencies and stakeholder groups have enhanced resources and opportunities for collaboration leading to greater success and opportunities for individuals with disabilities.
How will the next 50 years unfold?
The future looks promising, but there is more work for all of us to do in partnership to ensure that individuals with disabilities, including those with the most significant disabilities, realize the hopes set out in the purpose, principles, and policy outlined in the Rehabilitation Act.
Just as the Department of Education views our schools as the superpower to “Raise the Bar” for students’ futures, the Rehabilitation Act provides the opportunity for VR agencies and RSA to be the superpower to “raise the bar” for individuals with disabilities and secure the promise of a future that knows no limits!
Blog articles provide insights on the activities of schools, programs, grantees, and other education stakeholders to promote continuing discussion of educational innovation and reform. Articles do not endorse any educational product, service, curriculum or pedagogy.