Veronica With Four Eyes

Vocational Rehabilitation for College Students

Shortly before the day of my high school graduation, my mom received a phone call from the state department for visual impairment services asking if I was graduating from high school and if I was interested in their services for vocational rehabilitation for college students. We hadn’t heard from anyone within the state unit for a few years since my case file had been lost up until that point, but agreed to meet with a case manager to learn more about services that were available to me as a Virginia resident attending college with low vision. While each state program varies, here are some examples of vocational rehabilitation resources for college students, and my own experience with the program.

What is vocational rehabilitation?

Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) services provide training for developing skills for accessing information with low vision or nonvisual assistive technology for the purpose of gaining or maintaining employment. VR services are provided by certified vocational rehabilitation professionals and may cover areas such as learning to use a screen reader and keyboard access, using a blindness cane, getting access to assistive technology devices, and attending other trainings. Some VR programs offer a residential option for developing independent living skills such as doing laundry and accessing transportation, and many students participate in these programs during a gap year or semester before starting college, while other VR programs involve meeting with a case manager and living at home. VR services are offered at no cost to the individual and are available in every state, though the name of the agency offering VR services varies from state to state- in Virginia, services are provided through the Department for the Blind and Vision Impaired (DBVI).

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Vocational rehabilitation programs typically require individuals to have a case file with their state department or state unit for visual impairment. Each state has their own guidelines for who qualifies to receive services from the state unit for visual impairment, and some programs within the unit have their own criteria as well. In general, state residents can refer themselves for program services or be referred by another professional such as a social worker, low vision specialist, or teacher of the visually impaired either online or by phone. State unit services are available for people of all ages, including infants, children, and seniors, though most states require vocational rehabilitation participants to be 18 years old or older.

The majority of state units for visual impairment require medical documentation of vision loss that is not corrected by glasses as well as a recent report from an eye doctor. People with low vision do not necessarily have to be certified as legally blind, but will need to share documentation that shows their visual acuity with corrective lenses.

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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, but because my case file was lost a year later, 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 until shortly before I graduated from high school. An intake appointment was scheduled for about a month later, and the case manager determined that I qualified to receive vocational rehabilitation services while going to college full-time. 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 an electric car unless I improved my orientation and mobility skills, and that I would be a good candidate for using a blindness cane. While I initially resisted, having orientation and mobility lessons and learning to navigate college campuses with a blindness cane helped me tremendously with being independent, and I credit my blindness cane for helping me to live on my own.

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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.”

According to my IPE, my goal is to graduate from college with degrees in computational and data science and assistive technology and have full time employment working for a company. This goal is somewhat vague because assistive technology and accessibility intersects with a variety of different fields of study.  In order to fulfil this goal listed in my IPE, I will need to have assistive technology so I can make my coursework accessible and 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 tried out 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 mainstream technology or assistive technology 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.

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Orientation and mobility services

Before starting college, my case manager called the DBVI office near my university and 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, and fell in love with the Ambutech rolling marshmallow tip cane, which I’ve since purchased in a few different colors.

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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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Other Vocational Rehabilitation services available for college students with low vision

  • Scholarships and financial assistance for two-year and four-year colleges, as well as other programs like trade schools, vocational schools, etc
  • Short-term residential vocational rehabilitation programs for developing independent living skills
  • Assistance with filling out job applications and other tasks related to gaining employment
  • Events and classes for job upskilling and networking, as well as talks by blind/low vision professionals
  • College transition resources for two-year and four-year colleges


Vocational Rehabilitation for College Students. How blind and low vision college students can benefit from vocational rehabilitation services