The Vocational Rehabilitation Act (“VR Act”) is a federal law that was passed by Congress in 1973 to prohibit discrimination against persons with qualified mental and/or physical disabilities who wish to enroll in various federal programs. 

Similar to the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), the VR Act explicitly requires the federal government to actively hire and promote, offer equal access to training and advanced opportunities. It also requires the government to provide reasonable accommodations for individuals with disabilities.

In 1988, the Act was amended to transfer such responsibilities to state-run organizations and to approve federal grants to states in order to carry out these duties. Specifically, the amendment approved federal grants to states to use them for purposes, such as vocational rehabilitation services, supported employment programs, client assistance, and independent living.

This prompted California to create a State Rehabilitation Council, which is tasked with overseeing and advising the California Department of Rehabilitation (“DOR”). The DOR is the state agency responsible for providing vocational rehabilitation services to disabled workers and for promoting equality with non-disabled workers throughout the state. 

For instance, if you have a qualified disability and need assistance with vocational rehabilitation services (e.g., finding a job, training for a job, or obtaining job counseling), then you should contact the DOR since it is the state’s primary resource for finding and receiving vocational rehabilitation services. 

In addition, California law defines vocational rehabilitation in accordance with the definition provided by the revised federal VR Act. There are also several other major state and federal laws that govern disability rights and access to services in California. Most of these can be found in the Unruh Civil Rights Act, the Fair Employment and Housing Act (“FEHA”), and Sections 54 to 55.2 of the California Civil Code.

Some other examples of vocational rehabilitation services that you may be eligible for under California law include interview coaching, wage-assessment evaluations, ergonomics assessment (i.e., how efficient you are in a particular work environment), and tuition or education funds for retraining purposes.

Who is Eligible for Vocational Rehabilitation Under California Laws?

In order to be found eligible for vocational rehabilitation services under California law, an individual must:

  • Have a mental, physical, emotional, and/or learning disability that significantly impairs their ability to secure employment in a new position or to retain their former position;
  • Require the help of the DOR and the vocational rehabilitation services that it offers to either prepare, secure, retain, or regain employment that is consistent with the individual’s set of skills, interests, former work, career goals, and so forth; and
  • Be able to benefit from the DOR’s services (e.g., in regard to employment and being placed into an integrated work environment).

In most instances, persons who already receive Social Security Disability Insurance (“SSDI”) or Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) benefits are typically eligible for vocational rehabilitation services in California. Students who are enrolled in special educational programs, receive assistance at school, or have a serious medical condition are also likely eligible to apply for vocational rehabilitation services. 

In addition, California law provides certain criteria that the DOR must comply with when determining an applicant’s eligibility for vocational rehabilitation services. The DOR’s decision can only be based on the following four requirements:

  • It must be determined that an individual has a physical and/or mental impairment. This determination may be made by someone either employed by the DOR or another qualified individual who does not work for the DOR.
  • It must be determined that the individual’s physical and/or mental impairment significantly hinders them from obtaining employment.This determination may be made by someone either employed by the DOR or another qualified individual who does not work for the DOR.
  • A determination must be made by a rehabilitation counselor that the applicant requires vocational rehabilitation services to either prepare, secure, retain, or regain employment that is consistent with the individual’s desires or work skills.
  • There must be a presumption that the individual will be able to benefit from the DOR’s vocational rehabilitation services. 

Lastly, it is important to note that not everyone who is eligible and applies will receive the DOR’s services since there many people who need assistance and not enough funds to help everyone. Generally speaking, the more severe the impairment, the better the chances are of an applicant being approved. However, a medical condition cannot be so severe that hinders the individual’s ability to benefit from the DOR’s services. 

What is the Process for Applying for Vocational Rehabilitation in California?

There are a number of ways that an individual can apply for vocational rehabilitation services in California. The first is that they can visit the DOR’s website, download and complete the form provided under the section entitled “how to apply”, and can then either submit it online, in person, or mail it to their local DOR office.

Another way to apply is by going to a local DOR office and completing an application in person. An individual may also be referred to the DOR by a program or counselor that has a relationship with the DOR (e.g., America’s Job Center of California), or they may apply directly on the AJCC’s website or in person at a local AJCC office.

The DOR may then request certain information that is necessary to begin the assessment and determination process of whether an individual is eligible to receive vocational rehabilitation services. They will also evaluate how significant and urgent their need is for the DOR’s assistance.

The third and final step of the application typically entails completing the assessment process. This may involve attending an interview, participating in a skills-assessment evaluation, viewing an orientation video, and/or finishing any other activities that were agreed upon by the individual and their counselor. 

What Steps Can I Take to Be Considered for Vocational Rehabilitation?

As previously discussed, an individual should contact their local DOR office for further information or the AJCC to learn more about the application process. Alternatively, an individual can also speak to their human resources department if they are currently employed. 

Next, if an individual has not already received a medical diagnosis, then they will be assigned a rehabilitation counselor and will need to undergo a medical evaluation. Once they have received a medical diagnosis, they can then be reviewed for eligibility and may submit an application for rehabilitation services. It should be noted that it can take up to 60 days to receive a decision concerning the applicant’s eligibility. 

If the individual is determined to be eligible and their application is complete, they can then begin requesting the types of vocational rehabilitation services that they need. 

Can My Employer Transfer Me to Another Position Due to My Vocational Rehabilitation?

In California, the DOR can assist with communicating with a qualified individual’s employer to transfer them to another position or relearning job skills based on their vocational rehabilitation needs, regardless of whether it is for a short term or long term position. 

However, if the individual’s vocational rehabilitation needs go beyond the type of reasonable accommodations they require to perform the essential duties of the job, then the employer will not be obligated to provide such accommodations. 

How Does a Disability Vocational Rehabilitation Affect Benefits?

As previously discussed, a person who receives SSI or SSDI benefits will most likely be able to receive vocational rehabilitation services from the DOR. However, if the disability is considered so extreme that the individual would not benefit from any of the vocational rehabilitation services that the DOR can offer them, then they will not be eligible to receive such benefits or the DOR’s assistance.

For instance, if a person is unable to work even with the help of the DOR and reasonable accommodations, then they will not satisfy the requirements for eligibility. Though they may be able to qualify for disability pay if they can show that they have been diagnosed with a total and permanent disability (e.g., paralysis or loss of limbs). 

Do I Need to Consult with a California Lawyer If I have an Issue with Vocational Rehabilitation?

If you are experiencing issues with vocational rehabilitation services, then you should strongly consider contacting a California employment lawyer for further assistance. An employment lawyer who has experience in handling vocational rehabilitation issues in California, can inform you of your rights and will be able to determine whether an agency or your employer is in violation of federal and/or state vocational rehabilitation laws. 

Your lawyer can also assess any claims you may have and can recommend some options for legal recourse. Additionally, if your claim for vocational rehabilitation services has been denied, your lawyer can evaluate the strength of your claim and can help you file an appeal if they determine it is strong enough.