For many state vocational rehabilitation agencies, students and young adults with disabilities now represent half or more of their caseloads. In program year 2019, agencies served 274,000 youth younger than age 19 and 171,000 youth ages 19 to 24. This shift away from working-age adults to students and young adults with disabilities is a result of provisions in the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, which expanded the role of agencies in offering services to students with disabilities, often through preemployment transition services. Agencies must make changes in resources, staff, and relationships to develop programs and services that address the needs of this young population and promote better employment outcomes.
In 2016, Vermont Vocational Rehabilitation (VocRehab) received a Disability Innovation Fund grant from the U.S. Department of Education for a five-year project called Linking Learning to Careers (LLC). With this funding, VocRehab hired career consultants and youth employment specialists to provide additional services to about 400 high school students. These services include work-based learning opportunities, a focus on postsecondary education and training options, vouchers for two free college courses, assistive technology support, and increased transportation funding. A recent project evaluation showed significant impacts on services, education, and, for some students, employment. As a result of its involvement with the grant, VocRehab has refined its transition program practices, offering a road map for other vocational rehabilitation agencies looking to improve their youth programs.
Right-sizing staffing and scope is key to successful transition programs
A key innovation of LLC is its extended time frame for career consultants to work with youth. By providing transition services beyond high school graduation, LLC participants avoided the disruptions that often arise as youth transition into adult services. Because many forms of support end upon high school graduation, youth with disabilities and their families can find themselves unmoored and searching for resources at a crucial moment. The relationships LLC staff built with participants enabled them to support students beyond high school.
LLC staff emphasized the advantages of working with youth the summer and fall after graduation. The ability for youth to have someone familiar with their unique career aspirations, educational progress, work history, and goals meant that when they were ready to engage, VocRehab was there. Moreover, staff became well versed in the constellation of available services and provided guidance about resources whether the youth’s next step was career exploration, education and training, or employment.
Although the project ends in September 2021, the LLC experience demonstrated the value of holding transition cases through the school exit phase and into early adulthood. VocRehab has committed to reassigning a dozen adult counselors into transition counselor roles (making for a total of 26 counselors) and extending the service age range through age 24 under existing funding.
Successful transition programs require local collaboration and central office guidance
We knew the old way of doing business would not support the enhancements and staffing model of the LLC design. Transition counselors worked independently on site at schools or employers, outside of the main VocRehab office environment. Along with youth employment specialists, they covered the high schools in a district and coordinated services across varied catchment areas. However, there were differences in how staff delivered transition services, and the patchwork of approaches and work styles made integrating LLC staff and priorities difficult.
To standardize the transition program experience for schools, youth, and families, and to align local offices with statewide initiatives, VocRehab changed its approach to transition programming and staffing. It created district youth teams to provide consistent, organized, and agile communication and collaboration. District-based transition counselors, youth employment specialists, and career consultants from across the state meet weekly or biweekly using a uniform format for meetings to clarify their roles, discuss individual cases, coordinate activities, and discuss other topics.
At the same time, VocRehab rolled out a careers initiative. It focused on long-term career goals and encouraged participants to view the relationship with VocRehab as an enduring one rather than a one-time interaction. Staff proposed possible careers based on a person’s interests, readiness, and life situation and offered a continuum of experiences related to those careers. In the transition program, this change provided a road map for youths’ aspirational journeys and encouraged them to return to VocRehab for future support. As LLC ends, the newly expanded district youth teams are supporting the rollout of the careers initiative across Vermont.
Better access to assistive technology—a small change with big potential
Although high schools can deliver assistive technology solutions to students with disabilities, many of them lack the funding or expertise to do this well or equitably. The LLC program included two full-time staff and additional funding to offer assistive technology, and the evaluation found this approach led to more students using these services. As a result of its experiences, VocRehab will continue this support using existing funding, providing transition teams with greater access to education, training, and dedicated budgets to find and buy assistive technology that youth can use on work sites and in postsecondary education and training settings.
The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the significant role of technology in engaging youth. The ability to connect through a variety of media allows staff to tailor their outreach and meet youth on their preferred platforms. Nonetheless, many youth do not have the means to buy or maintain needed technology. With this in mind, VocRehab created a budget for district youth teams to help meet the demand for appropriately matched technology, which can include devices, phone or tablet applications, and other related items. This commitment to meet the assistive and communication technology needs of clients gives staff and partners the confidence to encourage youth to pursue more ambitious employment and educational goals.
Vocational rehabilitation agencies across the country face pressures in working with more students and young adults with disabilities and developing programs tailored to their needs. The programmatic and policy changes that VocRehab is pursuing to better address the needs of their youth use existing resources and funding, offering a road map for other agencies. VocRehab’s experiences with LLC led the agency to reallocate staffing to the transition program, extend the time that staff work with youth into young adulthood, reorient service delivery toward long-term career prospects, and add needed assistive technology services. In strengthening the workforce system so that people with disabilities can achieve employment and other goals, these changes embody the intent and spirit of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act.