Increase Text-Size Decrease Text-Size Default Text-Size High-Contrast View Close

Vocational Rehabilitation

The Vocational Rehabilitation program is a federally funded network of agencies designed to help people with disabilities find and maintain employment. Because they are authorized to pay for a wide range of supports that may help a person find and keep a job, they can be a valuable source of funding for supports that help people gain independence - including communication supports. 

Who is Eligible for Vocational Rehabilitation Services?

To be eligible for vocational rehabilitation services, an individual must: 

  • Be an individual with a disability that results in a "substantial barrier to employment";
  • Be able to benefit from vocational rehabilitation services to achieve an employment outcome; and
  • Require vocational rehabilitation services to achieve an employment outcome.

Typically, a person who needs significant support in order to communicate would be seen as eligible for vocational rehabilitation services if the individual:

  • Is an adult or transition-aged youth; and
  • Has a goal of achieving or keeping short-term or long-term employment (including supported employment).

People who receive Supplemental Security Income (SSI) or Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) are presumed to be eligible for Vocational Rehabilitation services, unless there is strong evidence that the person would not benefit from those services. For example, even if a person does not expect to be able to achieve employment without significant continuing supports, that individual would still be eligible for vocational rehabilitation services if there is a possibility that he or she might benefit from supported employment services.  

Someone who already is employed could also still be eligible for vocational rehabilitation services. For example, if the person needs communication supports in order to keep a job, that person may be eligible for vocational rehabilitation services.  

How the Vocational Rehabilitation Process Works

To access vocational rehabilitation services, a person must apply at his or her state vocational rehabilitation agency. You can find your state agency on the Job Accommodation Network web site. Many states have multiple regional vocational rehabilitation offices. There is no cost to apply for vocational rehabilitation services. 

Upon applying for services, the vocational rehabilitation agency will make an eligibility determination in order to decide whether the individual qualifies for VR services. If the individual is eligible, the agency may go on to conduct an assessment of vocational needs, including an assessment of the types of supports the individual needs to gain or maintain employment. The agency will then develop an Individualized Plan for Employment (IPE) that outlines the individual's employment goals and the services that VR will provide. VR may also help coordinate services with other agencies and provide follow-up services to ensure that the individual maintains employment after finding it. 

Many Vocational Rehabilitation agencies have a waiting list or "order of selection" that prioritizes some people over others. The agencies are required to serve people with the "most significant" disabilities first, but what counts as the "most significant" disabilities can vary from state to state. 

Paying for Services

If a person is found eligible for vocational rehabilitation services and wants to proceed, the agency will work with the individual to develop an Individual Plan for Employment (IPE). The IPE will outline which services - including communication supports - the agency will pay for. 

If the individual needs communication supports from the vocational rehabilitation agency, it is critical that these services be included explicitly in the IPE. 

The IPE can include a variety of services, including vocational counseling, transportation, higher education, and vocational training. People with communication needs may be eligible for assistive technology services, and independent living skills training. People with significant communication needs may also benefit from supported employment services, which can include having a supporter on-site at a job location who can help the individual use assistive communication technology and/or otherwise communicate with supervisors and coworkers. If higher education is part of the IPE, the vocational rehabilitation agency may help pay for supports that help a person communicate in the classroom. 

Although there is no cost to apply for vocational rehabilitation services, the vocational rehabilitation agencies are required to avoid spending money that they do not have to spend. This means that where possible, vocational rehabilitation agencies may: 

  • Try to have services paid for by other agencies or programs, such as Medicaid;
  • Ask applicants to fill out statements of financial need before paying for services.

The requirement that vocational rehabilitation agencies avoid paying for services that could be paid through other programs is called the payor of last resort requirement. For example:

  • The Vocational Rehabilitation agency may not provide speech-language services that can be paid through the Medicaid program, but may pay the cost of an assistive communication device or software that Medicaid will not cover - such as an iPad or other "multi-use" device. 
  • The Vocational Rehabilitation agency may help pay for a communication device and/or supporter to assist an individual communicate in a higher education classroom context, but may not pay for communication services that the school must provide under the Americans with Disabilities Act

In some situations - for example, when another agency also considers itself to be the payor of last resort - people may feel that they are being "bounced" between vocational rehabilitation and another program. In these situations, people are protected by two provisions in the law authorizing vocational rehabilitation services: 

  • First, the payer of last resort requirement is waived if seeking funding elsewhere would interrupt or delay progress toward vocational goals (29 U.S.C. § 721(a)(8)(A)(i)). For example, if a person needs a communication device in order to obtain employment, the vocational rehabilitation program can pay for the device if the only other possible source of funding would require a lengthy application and approval process. This waiver may also apply if another agency is refusing to pay for a service that the vocational rehabilitation office thinks it should pay for.
  • Second, Vocational Rehabilitation programs also are required to establish coordination agreements with other agencies that may fund services, including Medicaid agencies. They can also establish agreements with Regional Centers. These coordination agreements can include detailed descriptions of which agencies are required to pay for which services. In some cases, there will already be a Memorandum of Understanding or other similar coordination agreement that will clarify which agency should pay for which service.