Bureaucracy and the Individual:
The Plan for Rehabilitation in the Twenty-first Century

by Fredric K. Schroeder, Ph.D.

From the Editor: On Wednesday morning, July 8, Dr. Fredric Schroeder, Commissioner of the Rehabilitation Services Administration of the U.S. Department of Education, delivered his annual address to the National Federation of the Blind. This is what he said:

Thank you, President Maurer. I'd like to begin by adding my congratulations on your re-election as President of the National Federation of the Blind. I was thinking about what this means as the elections were taking place this morning. Two months ago, as you all know, President Maurer was presented an honorary degree by Menlo College in California. I thought: here is a man who has been recognized for his commitment and his ability and his leadership externally by the academic community and now reaffirmed this morning by blind people throughout the nation. I would say that the National Federation of the Blind is very, very fortunate to have a president like Marc Maurer.

I'd like to begin by recognizing that a number of my colleagues from the Rehabilitation Services Administration are here with me today. From our Dallas office Mr. Loran Steever, our regional commissioner, is here. Also from our Dallas office is Martha Garber. From my office in Washington is Susan Benbow, and also the Director of the Division for the Blind, Joe Cordova, is with me this morning.

As we discuss rehabilitation programs in the United States, I think it is important to recognize that the model for rehabilitation—what has become an enduring and powerful model for rehabilitation—was brought to us by Dr. Jernigan. He did much more than articulate a philosophy. Dr. Jernigan took that philosophy and put it into practice and built the most effective program for the blind that has ever existed in this country. It would behoove all of us as rehabilitation professionals to learn from the work that he has done.

For blind people and others to attain social and economic integration, we must find ways to aid the rehabilitation system to work better. But what is meant by working better? Better than what? And are better services good services?

To know whether rehabilitation services are good services and to know whether we are making progress, we must first share a common understanding, a common belief about the purpose of the rehabilitation program. In my view the system exists to assist blind people and others with disabilities to achieve high-quality employment according to their individual interests and abilities--good-quality employment that can help lift them out of poverty but, beyond that, afford them the opportunity to live normal lives as integrated members of society. But what do these words mean? How are words such as "high-quality employment" any more precise than words like "better services"? What is high-quality employment?

Agreeing on the meaning of "better services" and "high-quality employment" speaks to expectations—the expectations of the client for the system and the expectations of the system for the client and what it believes he or she might be able to achieve. It speaks to the question of whether we genuinely believe in the inherent normalcy of blind people or whether we as a society continue to assume that blind people are forever doomed to lives of nominal participation.

Today few would argue that blind people cannot be employed, but the real question is whether we as a society and as a service delivery system and, for that matter, we as blind people ourselves truly believe that blind people can achieve equal status in society. We know that blind people can work, but do we believe that blind people truly have the same full range of talents and abilities as others and, given training and opportunity, can work competitively alongside the sighted? To expand employment opportunities for blind people, we must recognize that our real struggle, our first and most pressing priority, is to reshape society's beliefs and attitudes about blindness.

As a rehabilitation system we know how to accommodate an individual's disability. We know about the training and the assistive technology that can enable the individual to work. But to assist blind people in attaining true integration, we must seek opportunities for blind people and others to pursue their individual interests and aspirations. With this principle in mind let me discuss with you the current status of the reauthorization of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, as amended (the Act) and how certain proposed changes will better enable state rehabilitation agencies to support blind people and others in pursuing high-quality employment.

In the House of Representatives amendments to reauthorize the Act are contained in the Employment, Training, and Literacy Enhancement Act of 1997 (H.R. 1385), which was passed by the House in May, 1997. The Senate's bill to extend authorization of the Act is the Rehabilitation Act Amendments of 1998 (S. 1579). This bill was adopted on May 5, 1998, as an amendment to the Workforce Investment Partnership Act (WIPA, S. 1186). Congress is now working through a conference committee to resolve differences between the two bills.

The Senate bill contains many more changes and new provisions than the House proposal. However, when taken together, the bills would streamline administrative procedures; expand consumer choice; increase opportunities for high-quality employment; and link the vocational rehabilitation (VR) program to a state's workforce development system.

For example, to increase access to the system, the Senate bill takes an important step to simplify eligibility determinations by establishing presumptive eligibility for people who receive Social Security Supplemental Income (SSI) or Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) benefits and who are seeking employment. While the provision does not establish an entitlement to VR services for SSI recipients and SSDI beneficiaries, it recognizes that they have already been determined by an agency of the federal government—the Social Security Administration—to have a disability which impedes their ability to work and accordingly receive cash and medical benefits.

Concerning informed choice, the Senate and House proposals expand the choice provisions in the Act in several ways. State VR agencies, through an open process, will be required to develop and implement policies and procedures to afford opportunities for applicants for VR services and eligible individuals to exercise informed choices throughout the rehabilitation process. The policies and procedures must include the provision of information and support services to assist applicants and eligible individuals in making informed choices.

Current law requires that VR services be provided in an integrated setting; however, the Senate and House bills clarify that the requirement is for the most integrated setting that is appropriate to the service being provided and consistent with the informed choice of the individual. If a particular program or service is better suited to a special setting, such as orientation and adjustment training, it may continue to be provided in a nonintegrated setting. Both bills also incorporate current regulatory language on informed choice in the selection of the employment goal, services, service providers, and procurement methods.

Both bills rename the Individualized Written Rehabilitation Program (IWRP) to focus on employment and expand the client's role in developing it. Clients (or their representatives) will have the new option of developing their own plans for approval by state VR agencies, or they may jointly develop their plans with rehabilitation counselors in the traditional fashion.

To encourage new opportunities for high-quality employment, both the House and Senate bills include new provisions that emphasize self-employment and small business operation. The Senate bill adds to the scope of VR services, technical assistance, and other consultation services for eligible individuals who are pursuing self-employment or small business operation. Both bills introduce new authorities to fund special service projects to assist individuals in pursuing self-employment, and the Senate bill includes authority for special projects in the area of telecommuting.

While the Rehabilitation Services Administration (RSA) does not administer Title V of the Act, I would like to give you an update on proposed changes to section 508. The Senate version of section 508 would strengthen current law by requiring every federal department or agency to procure, maintain, and use electronic and information technology that is accessible to people with disabilities, unless not practicable. An important change in the Senate proposal is a requirement that, within eighteen months after the date of enactment, the Access Board must issue standards that set forth the technical and functional performance criteria necessary to implement the requirements of section 508. Another important proposed change is a provision which would allow any individual with a disability to file a complaint alleging that a procurement action is inconsistent with the established standards.

Turning to another matter, you may be aware that on March 13, 1998, President Clinton issued an Executive Order on the Employment of Adults with Disabilities. The Executive Order articulates the belief that people with disabilities in the United States should be employed to the same extent as the general population. It calls for the creation of a national Task Force made up of the Secretaries of most domestic policy Federal departments, including the Departments of Labor, Education, Commerce, Health and Human Services, and Justice. The Task Force is chaired by Labor Secretary Alexis Herman with Tony Coelho, the Chairman of the President's Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities serving as Vice Chair. The Task Force will examine Federal disability policy to determine what changes can be made in a coordinated, interagency effort to remove barriers to employment facing people with disabilities.

As the rehabilitation system seeks ways of increasing employment opportunities, we must begin by recognizing the importance of education in acquiring high-quality jobs. We know that there is a strong correlation between education and earnings. The more education an individual has, the more money he or she is likely to make. Conversely, people with little education on average earn less than more highly educated workers, and are more apt to live in poverty.

RSA is in the fourth year of a longitudinal study of the VR Services program. Preliminary findings indicate that competitively employed individuals with disabilities with less than a high school diploma or GED equivalency earn an average of $6.30 per hour. Those with more than a high school education average slightly over $9 per hour, or over 40% greater earnings, due to higher academic achievement. Unfortunately, of all people competitively employed in the longitudinal study, only 18 percent had earned any kind of degree beyond a high school diploma or GED equivalency. Less than 3 percent held an advanced degree.

Achievement levels in reading and mathematics also correlate strongly with earnings. Competitively employed workers with disabilities who read at less than the fourth-grade level barely earned the federal minimum wage, while those who read above the twelfth-grade level averaged $7.52 per hour, over 36 percent more than the poor readers.

The disparity in earnings by math achievement levels is even more dramatic. People with math achievement levels at less than fourth grade earn an average of $5.56 an hour. Those with achievement levels above the twelfth grade earn an average hourly wage of $8.54, over 50 percent more.

An important measure of high-quality employment is access to health insurance. Only 36 percent of all disabled workers in the VR longitudinal study received medical benefits through their employers. Not surprisingly, better paying jobs were also more likely to include health benefits.

The staggering unemployment rate among blind people and others with disabilities can be significantly reduced through more jobs, but high-quality jobs are the key to true economic independence. High-quality jobs mean higher-paying jobs that include critical benefits such as health insurance and retirement plans. High-quality jobs mean jobs that are not dead end but have opportunities for career advancement. And, most important, high-quality jobs mean jobs which the individual finds challenging and rewarding. In many instances access to high-quality jobs will require better-qualified candidates, and therein lies the challenge.

It is unconscionable to train people for entry-level, low-paying jobs with few or no benefits when additional training or education would qualify them for better jobs with better benefits and economic independence. We serve no one well when we assist an individual in becoming underemployed.

We know that higher academic achievement leads to higher earnings, and higher earnings lead to health insurance and other important benefits. Blind people must be encouraged to seek out high-quality employment, not simply stereotypic jobs or the most readily available jobs. To prepare blind people for high-quality jobs, blind people must first be literate. We must be able to read and write Braille if we are to pursue advanced academic or technical training. Consequently, the rehabilitation system must encourage and support blind people in pursuing training in the skills of blindness as well as the academic or technical credentials necessary to compete successfully for good jobs. And the system must also encourage and assist those who are underemployed to acquire the additional skills or education they need to achieve true social and economic integration. Service providers and blind people must share a common belief in the fundamental equality of blind people. We must forge partnerships between blind people and the rehabilitation system growing out of the shared belief in the capacity of blind people to work competitively and to live normal productive lives.

In short, we must continue to struggle to break free from the bonds of minimal expectations. We must continue to struggle to create opportunities for blind people to achieve academically and to pursue their individual interests and abilities. We must continue to struggle for high-quality employment, but not simply to lift ourselves out of poverty. We must continue to struggle for high-quality employment as a symbol of true social and economic integration. We must continue to struggle for high-quality employment as the tangible expression of our fundamental normalcy. And we must continue to struggle for high-quality employment as evidence that we have the capacity and right to assume the challenges and opportunities of first-class status.