Veronica With Four Eyes

Vocational Rehabilitation for Students With Vision Impairments

Three years ago, my family and I were preparing for my high school graduation, which was mere days away. I had an unexpected English final to study for, family was coming in from out of town, and we were trying to make sure my IEP was switched over to a 504 plan before graduation. On top of everything, my mom received a call from the Virginia Department of the Blind and Visually Impaired (DBVI) asking if I was interested in receiving vocational rehabilitation services, which we had no idea existed. Now, I tell every visually impaired student I know about these services. Today, I will be sharing what vocational rehabilitation services are and how students with vision impairments can benefit from them.

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What is vocational rehabilitation?

Vocational rehabilitation is “a process which enables persons with functional, psychological, developmental, cognitive and emotional impairments or health disabilities to overcome barriers to accessing, maintaining or returning to employment or other useful occupation.” It ensures that people with disabilities have the skills and ability to enter the workforce and gain meaningful employment, remain employed, and advance in their jobs. Each state has their own vocational rehabilitation agency funded by the Vocational Rehabilitation Act of 1998 that supports people with disabilities, including vision impairment (a term that includes blindness and low vision). Some states may have one agency that serves people with all disabilities, like Maryland, while other states have a separate agency for people with vision impairment, like Virginia. It does not cost anything to receive services from this program.

Do I have to be on Social Security?

Vocational rehabilitation services can be used by people who receive Social Security or other government assistance. However, you don’t have to be on Social Security in order to receive services. If needed, vocational rehabilitation agencies can help someone receive government benefits.

The ultimate goal of the program is to allow participants to be self-sufficient and not need government assistance. Some services that are provided are based on financial need, such as scholarships, but students can still receive a lot of benefits from the program that aren’t necessarily linked to financial assistance.

Joining the program

I have had a case with DBVI since I was in ninth grade. All of the services I received for my vision impairment were provided to me through my school district. Because of this, we had not received information about the vocational rehabilitation program, and were interested to see how it could benefit me as a college student. We scheduled an intake appointment for about a month later and I was determined to be eligible for services. Another friend who received services from DBVI in high school told me that their case manager had them start preparing to transition to this program during their senior year of high school, and they started receiving vocational rehabilitation services not long after graduation.

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The first thing my case manager suggested

The vocational rehabilitation services intake meeting took place inside a restaurant. As my case manager watched me walk around, they noticed that I frequently bumped into objects, nearly walked into several walls, and relied on my mom as a human guide. They asked me how I cross the street, and my answer was that I listen for the cars. They did not like this answer, and they agreed with my mom that I would probably get hit by a Prius unless I improved my orientation and mobility skills. This led them to suggest that I start using a blindness cane. While I initially resisted, I eventually gave in and got myself a cane. I  immediately noticed that I felt much more confident when travelling independently at my university.

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Developing an IPE

An Individualized Plan for Employment, also known as an IPE, is “a written plan outlining an individual’s vocational goal, and the services to be provided to reach the goal.”

My goal is to graduate from college with degrees in computational and data science and assistive technology. I also want to gain employment working for some type of company. My goal is somewhat vague because assistive technology and accessibility intersects with a variety of different fields of study. In order to fulfil this goal, I will need to have assistive technology so I can make my coursework accessible. I will also need a disability services file at my university. My case manager and I developed my IPE in an afternoon and review it every year to see if there are any needed updates.

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Receiving assistive technology

I had the awesome opportunity to shadow one of DBVI’s assistive technology specialists one afternoon and explore several different devices. One of the most useful devices I tested was the E-Bot Pro. However, the device was a bit expensive, costing a bit over $3000.

Luckily, one of the components of my IPE was that I could get certain assistive technology devices free of charge, so long as I used them towards reaching my ultimate goal of graduating and gaining employment. Plus, if I was able to prove that i had been using the device to work towards my goal for twelve months, the device would then become mine and no longer be property of the state. I was super excited to learn about this program and receive one of my most-used devices for free. Some of my other friends use the program to receive laptops, specialized cell phones, and other technologies as well.

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Since I am very proficient with technology, I did not require any additional training on how to use devices. Another one of my friends needed a lot of assistance in learning how to use screen readers, magnification software, video magnifiers, or as they put it, “basically anything that requires electricity.” Vocational rehabilitation services can help to provide training for using devices and software, or help participants find free training classes or other resources.

Orientation and mobility services

Before starting college, my case manager called. the DBVI office near my university. They requested that  an orientation and mobility specialist come visit me to help me pick out a cane and learn my way around campus.

While I didn’t need much help learning how to navigate campus, I did appreciate having an O&M specialist help me pick out a blindness cane. I didn’t know there was more than one type of blindness cane at the time. I will always be thankful for the O&M specialist that introduced me to my beloved Ambutech cane.

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Using Protection and Advocacy organizations

At one point, an issue came up that required legal assistance from someone familiar with disability law. Since I had a case with DBVI and also received vocational rehabilitation services, I was able to also receive free legal services from the Disability Law Center of Virginia. They helped me resolve the situation very quickly and peacefully. Every state has an organization like this, referred to as a Protection and Advocacy organization.

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As much as 70% of people with vision impairments report unemployment. Vocational rehabilitation services can help tremendously with empowering people with disabilities to gain employment. I tell every student I meet about how they should take advantage of this program.

To find out more about your state’s program, run a web search and copy and paste “site:gov (your state name) vocational rehabilitation services vision impairment”, adding the name of your state. I wish you the best of luck!

A guide to state vocational rehabilitation services for students with vision impairments. Great for soon-to-be college students!

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