Every October begins National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM) in recognition and celebration of the contributions of workers with disabilities and the value of a workforce inclusive of their skills and talents. Nebraska VR (Vocational Rehabilitation) includes Disability Determinations, Assistive Technology Partnership, and the Client Assistance Program. The programs under Nebraska VR are comprised of over 300 staff at offices across the state (about 3/5 of the Nebraska Department of Education).
Even though we’ve been around for almost 100 years, many still question who are we, what do we do, and why are we in NDE?
Nationally, the program began in 1920 as a way to address the needs of veterans returning home after World War I. Nebraska’s VR program started a year later in 1921. Over the years, the program evolved into one helping individuals with disabilities of all kinds to prepare for, find, and keep jobs. Recent changes created an emphasis on also helping businesses recruit, train, and retain employees with disabilities. VR has a great degree of flexibility in the kind of services that can be provided as they are based on the individualized needs of the person with a disability. Typical supports include assistive technology, computers, hearing aids, job coaching, job readiness and skill building training, post-secondary training and education, self-employment, tools, uniforms, and vehicle and worksite modifications. As part of a broader workforce system, we provide the necessary support to help the individual achieve their career goal.
So why are we in NDE? In other states, the VR program is under Labor, HHS or is a stand-alone agency. In Nebraska, perhaps due to being in NDE, there has been an emphasis on working with students with disabilities for many years. In fact, about 35% of the 7,000 individuals served each year are students with disabilities. Our collaboration with schools in the provision of transition services benefits students with disabilities as they move from school to work or to post-secondary education and training. An individualized plan with transition services is designed to: a) assist the student and his or her family to think about goals for life after high school and to develop a plan to get there; b) design the high school experience to ensure that the student gains the skills needed to achieve his or her desired goals for life after high school; and c) identify and link the student and family to any needed services, supports or programs before the student leaves the school system.
In 2014, the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) mandated a set aside of VR funds for pre-employment transition services for students with disabilities strengthening the requirement for collaboration between VR and schools. Working with schools, we are responsible to ensure students have access to and are provided:
- Job Exploration Counseling;
- Workplace Readiness Training;
- Work-Based Learning Experiences;
- Counseling on Comprehensive Transition or Post-Secondary Educational Programs; and
- Instruction in Self-Advocacy.
Our efforts to provide pre-employment transition services has required the development of relationships with every school district in Nebraska. In the last two years, VR has provided financial support to schools, ESUs, and other public and private entities, for the development of innovative short-term programs to provide career exploration, job readiness, and work based learning opportunities for students with disabilities. This past summer, twenty programs across the state, from Omaha to Scottsbluff, were developed.
Other partnerships with Special Education and schools, include the Nebraska Youth Leadership Council (youth with disabilities promoting disability awareness and educating their peers about transition to college and work) and Project Search (a business-led school-to-work program). You can learn more about these initiatives at our website: http://www.vr.nebraska.gov.
By sharing VR’s focus on students with disabilities I hope to grow an understanding of the significance of VR being in the Department of Education. It is not just a matter of convenience but a relationship offering mutual benefits to the achievement of NDE’s mission “to lead and support the preparation of ALL Nebraskans for learning, earning, and living.”