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By Scott Bowman, Interim Assistant Commissioner,
Department of Assistive and Rehabilitation Service – Division of Blind Services (DARS-DBS)

Abstract: Mr. Bowman reviews the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act and the focus on ensuring that adults and teen with disabilities are prepared to meet the ever changing work world.

Key Words: Dept. of Assistive and Rehabilitation Service – Division of Blind Services, blind, visually impaired, vocational rehabilitation, transition services, supportive employment, qualified workforce

There are exciting changes in the world of Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) as we move into the 21st century.  These changes are focused on ensuring that adults and teens with disabilities are trained and prepared to meet the ever changing work world.  New federal legislation has been enacted to give every state in the nation new tools to build a qualified workforce.  I would like to share some information about this new law and how it will impact people with disabilities.

The Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) was signed into law by President Obama on July 22, 2014.  This law replaces the Workforce Investment Act of 1998 and amends the Adult Education and Family Literacy Act, the Wagner-Peyser Act, and the Rehabilitation Act Amendments of 1998.  WIOA makes significant improvements for individuals with disabilities, including students with disabilities as they make the transition from education to employment.

There are three major themes to this law.  The first is to be responsive to the business needs of the 21st century.  It is important to be able to fill in-demand occupations with qualified workers and to collaborate with employers.  The second theme is to emphasize services to students and youth with disabilities.  This includes pre-employment transition services and dedicated supported employment funds.  The third theme, is that the Department of Assistive and Rehabilitative Services (DARS) will collaborate with a group of “core partners,”  including several programs run by the Texas Workforce Commission (TWC). Together we will build a partnership to ensure that Texans with disabilities will have the support/training they need to be successful in the world of work.

Business needs

In order to meet the demands of a changing job market, it is important to prepare an educated and skilled workforce. WIOA directs the workforce system to be more responsive to the needs of business and industry, including providing training that addresses the skill needs of specific industries or employers, on-the-job training, customized training, and increased development of employer partnerships.  It is necessary that counselors delivering vocational rehabilitation services have a 21st century understanding of the evolving labor force and the needs of individuals with disabilities.  Counselors will need to provide consumers training that meets not just current, but also future employer needs; guiding applicants towards in-demand jobs and training that produces the skills that industry needs.

One of the things on which WIOA will measure VR effectiveness is the wages earned by the people we serve. To help in that area, WIOA encourages VR to consider helping eligible qualified individuals to pursue advanced training in the fields of science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (including computer science), medicine, law or business.  VR programs have always worked with employers to identify competitive integrated employment opportunities for individuals with disabilities. The new definition of competitive integrated employment is: full or part time work at minimum wage or higher and with wages and benefits similar to those without disabilities performing the same work and fully integrate with co-workers without disabilities.

Pre-Employment Transition Services

Vocational Rehabilitation agencies are required to make pre-employment transition services available to students with disabilities (in Texas age 10 through 22, which will include DBS transition students) in order to make the transition from secondary school to post-secondary education programs and competitive integrated employment.  These services include job exploration counseling, work based learning experiences, counseling on post-secondary opportunities, workplace readiness training, and training on self-advocacy.  There will be a focus on internships, apprenticeships and pre-apprenticeships, extended summer work programs, group skills trainings and workshops to address life skills, social skills and the soft skills needed to be successful in a work environment.  WIOA requires that VR agencies set aside at least 15% of their Federal VR program funds to provide these pre-employment services. 

WIOA also requires that VR programs will spend 50% of their supported employment grant on youth with disabilities (ages 14-24).  Supported employment services, including extended services, will be provided to youth with the most significant disabilities in order to assist those youth in achieving an employment outcome in supported employment.  The law also focuses on customized employment which is defined as “competitive integrated employment, for an individual with a significant disability.  Customized Employment is based on an individualized determination of the strengths, needs, and interests of the individual with a significant disability…designed to meet the specific abilities of the individual with a significant disability and the business needs of the employer… and carried out through flexible strategies.”  

Collaboration of Core Partners

DARS and TWC are working closely to develop a framework for increased coordination at the state and local levels.  DARS is coordinating with the Texas Education Agency to assess and implement the provisions of WIOA related to serving transition- age youth.  We will also continue to collaborate with business throughout the state to develop a business relations system that is responsive to the needs of businesses and consumers.

We are excited to see how these changes will increase the opportunities for Texans with disabilities to be successfully employed.