Final Comments for ACB on WIOA

June 11, 2015
 
Honorable Janet LaBreck
Commissioner, Rehabilitation Services Administration
U.S. Department of Education
400 Maryland Ave. SW, RM 5086
Washington, DC 20202
 
RE:     Comments for WIOA NPRM
34 CFR Parts 361, 363, and 397 
RIN 1820-AB70
[Docket ID ED-2015-OSERS-OOO1]
 
The American Council of the Blind is an organization with thousands of members from across the nation. A majority of our membership is comprised of blind and visually impaired people and we also have sighted members. Since the organizations inception in 1961, we have worked to create and foster a mutually respectful relationship with the Rehabilitation Services Administration. We have often invited officials to attend our conventions and have entered into ongoing discussions with RSA on how best to assure that people who are blind can optimize their opportunities for full-time unsubsidized employment.
 
For a variety of reasons, this task has become more difficult over the past two decades. In order to understand our comments on specific questions, it is necessary to put this period into perspective. On the positive side, client choice has become a cornerstone of rehabilitation theory and practice. At least on the face of it, the rehabilitation process is a cooperative process where the expectations of client and counselor are harmonized by mutually respectful discussion. That client choice has been eroded over the past two decades, particularly for individuals with multiple disabilities by the removal of placements through the NIB (National Industries for the Blind) system. This was done when the RSA began to change its definition of what it would consider an appropriate employment closure. Essentially, an arbitrary decision was made to suggest that blind people working with other blind people in a job that was their choice could no longer be counted as an acceptable positive closure. These closures have nothing to do with minimum wage. Virtually all the possible closures pay well above that level. Many pay $15 an hour. They are placements where people who are blind work on contracts that are administered by NIB agencies. In our view, work is work, whether it is done in an integrated or a segregated setting, it is still valuable and should be counted. The fact that such placements cannot be counted is a major disincentive towards successful employment of people who are blind and those who provide rehabilitation services to them. Over the past twenty years NIB has created thousands of jobs with fair and appropriate remuneration for people who are blind, which have been arbitrarily excluded from being counted as rehab closures.
 
At the same time, the economy has changed so that many of the available jobs are simply not open to people who are blind. This, too, has limited available placements. Because counselors and states are judged on the number of closures they manage each year, there continues to be pressure to move clients through the rehabilitation process as quickly as possible. This has especially harsh consequences for people who are blind.
 
Adjustment to blindness is neither easy nor rapid. People who are blind must learn to read using braille or access technology. They must learn to live independently which involves learning to cook and clean and manage their homes. People who are blind must study orientation and mobility in order to learn to know where they are and how to get around in a complex environment. It can be expected that acquiring all these skills takes time. More importantly, people who are blind must psychologically adjust to their condition, before even moving forward in the rehabilitation process. Until they are comfortable with themselves as blind people, they are not ready to go out into the community and work. As you will see, we believe that "homemaker" and "unpaid family worker" closures can be a plateau that can be used to give people who are blind the time they need to learn the skills that are crucial to their success.
 
Part 361 — the State Vocational Rehabilitation Services Program
Revised Definition of "Employment Outcome" — proposed sec. 361.5(c)(15)
RSA uses section 100(a) "Findings and purposes" from the act to propose the elimination of homemaker and unpaid family workers closures.
 
In our preliminary comments, we clearly indicate that we believe there is a fundamental difference between the rehabilitation of people who are blind and the rehabilitation of people with other disabilities. It takes much longer to rehabilitate a person who is blind because of the range of skills such individuals must learn if they are to live and work independently in our complex society. There is also a huge adjustment that must be made to the disability itself. Premature placement leads to failure which leads to recidivism in the rehabilitation process.
 
In many cases, homemaker and unpaid family worker closures are used as steppingstones for people who are blind. While caring for family, people who are blind also have time to adjust to their newly acquired disabilities and acquire new skills, such as developing and using orientation and mobility skills, using technology to manage reading, handling of money, and preparing food. These skills will then serve them well in being successful in unsubsidized integrated employment. Virtually the only population that is significantly affected by this policy decision is that of people who are blind. We categorically oppose the elimination of these two valuable adjustment tools.
 
We do not believe that the 2014 amendments require this unduly draconian proposal. As suggested in our preliminary comments, the economy and regulations have severely limited available successful closures for people who are blind. To eliminate these two useful transitional closures would be to deny more people who are blind both the choice in their rehabilitation process and the success they deserve.
 
Moreover, an adequate funding source does not exist for the provision of services to this population other than the use of federal vocational rehabilitation funds. With respect to funding for seniors, the Older Blind program has never been sufficient to provide the array of services that this population needs, and there is no reason to think that it will increase any time soon. For those under 55, who are not yet ready for an employment outcome, the funding situation is even more dire. The one potential source for such funding would have been independent living funds, but with those funds now transferred to the jurisdiction of the Department of Labor, there is virtually no chance of any of these moneys becoming available to provide the specialized services needed by this segment of the blind population.
 
We would make one final comment concerning the value of these closures.  If these closures are not available, there is a likelihood that more unsuccessful closures would result as newly blinded people are not ready for placement as soon as there is pressure to close their cases.  Provision of services to that population might then be left to Independent Living Centers who do not have the specialized personnel who can ensure the proper training and adjustment of these clients. Given the huge shortage of specialized degree trained personnel, surely it makes more sense to use these closures and, in the long run, save money by providing appropriate instruction and adjustment and allowing the time necessary for getting ready for training and placement.
 
To summarize, then, we do not believe that there is a requirement in the law to remove these closures and believe that individuals being served in separate and combined agencies who are blind will be disproportionately impacted if these closures are taken away. We believe, therefore, that the question you raise with regard to what the length of the transitional period should be is not appropriate. Nevertheless, we will respond to it. We believe that two things must happen if RSA determines that these closures must go away. First, every individual currently working toward homemaker or unpaid family worker should be able to take as long as he or she needs to meet the requirements of this closure. The psychological adjustment to blindness and the requisite training needed in activities of daily living, communication skills and orientation and mobility skills unique to being a successful blind person; are crucial for success and take a period of time based on the clients’ progress and success. This time length cannot be quantified in days, weeks or months… Second, we believe that at least two years must be allowed to transition these closures away. Clearly, we would reiterate that we do not believe that there is justification to eliminate these closures, but absolutely believe that much more time must be allowed for transition should RSA decide to take the inappropriate action of using the 2014 amendments as an excuse to remove these closures.
Section 361.42(f)
 
The proposed elimination, pursuant to the repeal of Title 34 CFR Section 361.42(f), of the ability of a DSU to use extended evaluations as an exception to trial work experiences to explore an individual's abilities, capabilities, and capacity to perform in work situations, would have an extremely adverse impact on some persons with disabilities, and particularly those who are blind or have low vision. This is most especially true when attempting to analyze the capabilities of youth with both sensory and intellectual disabilities. Frequently, an extended evaluation approach will produce far more objective and comprehensive data than will a trial work experience situation, depending upon, among other things, the type of work experience that can be found for the individual. A far wiser approach would be to empower the DSU to use an extended evaluation, rather than a trial work experience, when it is determined by a rehabilitation professional that the former approach would likely provide significantly better results in determining the individual’s eligibility for vocational rehabilitation services and the optimal service mix for that consumer.
 
Sec. 361.5(c)(9) 
Although we concur with RSA’s position that the goal of most, if not all, IPE’s should be a “competitive integrated employment outcome,” we have serious concerns about recent interpretations of this goal, which place undue focus on one specific issue, the “competitive” nature of an outcome, to the detriment of all other considerations. The law has always required that rehabilitation goals and IPE’s be based on an individual client’s strengths, resources, priorities, concerns, abilities, capabilities, interests, and informed choice. The success of a particular outcome should therefore be judged by how well it accomplishes the consumer’s goals based on these eight criteria and not on arbitrary policy decisions.
 
Section 361.48, A.
ACB understands that section 361.48, a,  would require that VR agencies reserve 15 percent of federal VR funding for the provision of Pre-Employment Transition Services, (PETS) for students with disabilities. In principle, we believe that this is a positive change to federal regulations. ACB understands the paramount importance of preparing youth with disabilities such that they are prepared to engage in competitive integrated employment. We believe that an increased emphasis on this population will help to ensure that future generations will experience higher rates of employment and that the jobs they get will be more likely to garner higher incomes.
However, ACB believes, that the definition of students with disabilities proposed in this NPRM is too restrictive. This is because it does not incorporate post-secondary students. Many people who are blind have post-secondary education as part of their IPE. These students are still in transition and thus are in need of and would benefit from PETS services. In addition, those who transition directly from high school to work will still be in need of PETS services so that they can maximize their potential in the employment world. Therefore, it is recommended that the population of those eligible for the 15 percent set aside should, be “anyone under age 22 including post-secondary students.”

Persons who are blind and visually impaired require a relatively high level of training in order to acquire the skills necessary to achieve competitive, integrated employment. These services include the skills needed by anyone seeking to be competitively employed along with a vast array of VR services. While incredible advances in computers and assistive technology allow blind persons to perform many job functions, they must have a higher level of computer knowledge when compared to those with sight who interact with computers via the graphical user interface. In addition, they must learn specialized skills such as braille and orientation and mobility.

ACB believes that the restrictive definition in the NPRM would short-change high school graduates who may be in need of further training once leaving their educational setting. Furthermore, we believe that this definition will result in a situation where VR agencies would be forced to spend more dollars on a relatively small population. Without increased overall federal VR funding we fear that this definition will diminish available services for other working-age adults who are also seeking competitive, integrated employment. Given that Americans tend to retire later in life than in years gone by, we believe that this definition will adversely impact many Americans who are blind and visually impaired.

ACB believes that an expanded definition of students with disabilities that includes post-secondary students strikes a good and fair balance that would best serve our population as a whole. For example, under the proposed definition, we have estimated that the state of Massachusetts would have to re-allocate approximately $700,000.00 in federal VR funds to the covered population. This figure would be reduced to approximately $100,000.00 if the definition is expanded as we propose.

In conclusion, ACB believes that the population eligible to receive services under the 15 percent set aside for PETS should include all persons under age 22 including post-secondary students. We believe this creates a more balanced approach to vocational rehabilitation whereby VR agencies are encouraged to put more emphasis on youth in transition while providing quality VR services to all blind and visually impaired Americans who seek to increase their opportunities for employment. We thank you for the opportunity to offer these comments. For further information, please contact ACB’S Director of External Relations and Policy, Eric Bridges. He can be reached by phone at 202-467-5081 or email at ebridges@acb.org.