In 1973, Congress passed the Vocational Rehabilitation Act in an effort to provide protection against discrimination for persons with disabilities. The act provided rehabilitative coverage requirements for employers and tasked employers with finding equitable options when an employee is no longer able to perform their original job duties. By providing rehabilitation services, persons with a disability can earn an income and lead an independent lifestyle.

What is Vocational Rehabilitation?

Vocational rehabilitation is an individualized employment program for a person with a disability. An eligible person may receive a variety of services specific to their needs. A person who requires services due to a physical, mental, or emotional disability that substantially interferes with their ability to work may qualify for the any of the following services:

  • Receive a diagnosis of their disability;
  • Accommodations in the workplace for their disability;
  • An interpreter, if deaf for example;
  • Counseling services and guidance;
  • Job training and coaching;
  • Reader software or other assistance if blind ;
  • Training and technical assistance regarding workplace accommodations for the employer to increase awareness and services for an eligible employee;
  • Physical and mental rehabilitation as it relates to their disability;
  • Assistance from technological devices to assist with their disability;
  • Job placement options and re-training; and/or
  • Personal assistance in the workplace.

Who is Eligible for Vocational Rehabilitation?

Anyone with a disability who wants to work and has the ability to work with appropriate services or accomodation. The Vocational Rehabilitation Act provides that a person who has been determined by qualified personnel to need services due to a physical, mental or emotional disability that is substantially interfering with their ability to work should be eligible for vocational rehabilitation.

If you are receiving Supplemental Security Income or Social Security Disability Income due to your disability, you are assumed to be qualified for vocational rehabilitation. However, if your disability prevents you from working at all, regardless of the job duties, then you would not be eligible for vocational rehabilitation.

When Do I Apply for Vocational Rehabilitation?

As soon as possible. If you know you already have a disability that interferes with your ability to work, you should apply now. If you have experienced changes while working that are affecting your ability to perform your job, you should apply as soon as you notice the changes or see a decrease in your abilities to perform your duties.

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

Vocational rehabilitation has a lot of benefits, but it’s not always easy to qualify or be considered for it. Here are the following steps you should take if you want to maximize your chances of qualifying for vocational rehabilitation:

  1. Contact your local Vocational Rehabilitation Office. Each state has one and you can look up yours by visiting www.askearn.org for the contact information for your local office. 
    1. You may also contact your HR office if you are currently employed. They may already have a program at work to help get your started.
  2. A counselor will be assigned to get your started. This may include getting a medical diagnosis if you haven’t had one already.
  3. Get reviewed for eligibility and make an application for services. It can take 60 days to get a decision on eligibility. 
    1. If more time is needed, the applicant and Vocational Rehabilitation Office may need to agree to an extension.
  4. Once eligible, you may begin appropriate rehabilitation services. If you are already employed, services and accommodations may be available to meet your current job duties or to assist you in being transferred to a position that you can perform.

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

Yes. If you can no longer perform your duties even with vocational rehabilitation services, your employer may offer you another position with comparable wages and benefits that you can perform with the assistance of vocational rehabilitation. You may need to take that offer in order to continue to receive the vocational rehabilitation benefits or risk losing them.

Your employer has a right to require you to take that offer, as there is a balance between accommodating an employee with a disability (whether it’s a short term or long term disability) and the employee no longer able to perform the essential functions of the job.

For example, a delivery driver is required to be able to drive; carry/lift large and heavy packages; and be able to go up to delivery locations with the packages. But if you now have a disability (whether permanent or temporary) that does not allow you to pick up packages or sit/drive for long periods of time, then you are unable to perform the job without substantial accommodations.

Employers are required to make reasonable accommodations, and what that means can vary from situation to situation. However, it is likely that an employer will not be required to accommodate an employee to where the position must be altered/modified greatly so the employee can accomplish the position’s goals. Employers may offer to do so, but they are not required.

If I Don’t Have a Job, Can Vocational Rehabilitation Services Help Me Get a Job?

Yes. If you have a disability and want to work, you should apply with your local vocational rehabilitation office. After determining eligibility, you will be able to work with a counselor that will help you get the rehabilitation services you need in order to work.

They can also help you find a job that you are able to perform and maintain any rehabilitation services that are necessary for you to be successful in your new career.

If I’m Totally Disabled, Can I Still Receive Vocational Rehabilitation Benefits?

No. If you are totally disabled and unable to work, even with vocational rehabilitation services, you are not eligible for these benefits. A total disability is typically characterised as a loss of use of legs, arms, hands, or eyes.

If you have a total and permanent disability, then you can qualify for disability pay. For example, a complete paralysis of your hands/arms that will never be able to recover due to serious injury or illness. Compared to temporary loss of use of your arms/hands due to something that is recoverable.

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

You should consult a lawyer about your rights to work with the assistance of vocational rehabilitation. If you can work with the assistance of vocational rehabilitation and your employer refuses to accommodate your disability, they may be violating the law.

An employment lawyer can evaluate your case and provide you with legal options to pursue. If your claim for vocational rehabilitation has been denied, a disability lawyer can help you file an appeal and evaluate the merits of your claim.