Ladies and Gentleman: Start Your Engines

Voc Rehab fuels the way to employment

by Kathy Wechsler on November 1, 2008 - 9:41am

QUEST Vol. 15, No. 6

Like a pit crew, vocational rehabilitation services (Voc Rehab or VR) help people with disabilities put the pedal to the metal and screech off toward their employment goals.

Third-grade teacher Angela Wrigglesworth, who has type 2 spinal muscular atrophy, is a good example. She says her health, happiness and well-being are a direct result of VR’s help.

“Teaching is the most fulfilling, enriching, rewarding job I could ever hope for,” says Wrigglesworth, a Houston resident who has been teaching for nine years. “And it never would have occurred without the support of our Voc Rehab here in Texas.”

Wrigglesworth, 31, “sings the praises” of Voc Rehab because over the course of her adult life, the agency has paid for her college education and expenses, modifications for two different vans and the purchase of a lift so she can use the bathroom at work.

What can Voc Rehab do for you?

Getting started

Angela Wrigglesworth teaches her third-grade students at Klenk Elementary School, Houston.

To find the nearest VR office, check the government section of the telephone directory or contact the Job Accommodation Network at (800) 526-7234 or

Some VR offices hold orientations about their state’s services and policies, at which people learn “what we can do and what we can’t,” and decide whether to apply, says Leslie Horkan, a supervising counselor at the South Salt Lake District of the Utah State Office of Rehabilitation.

Once an application is submitted, counselors determine whether the disability is a barrier to employment, and if VR services are needed to prepare for, find or keep employment, says Horkan, who has spinocerebellar atrophy and has been helped by VR herself. People with muscular dystrophy and related diseases generally qualify for VR services due to the disabling and progressive nature of these conditions.

Successful clients who get the most out of their VR benefits tend to communicate well with their counselors, be open to suggestions and show as much initiative as possible, says Horkan.

A wealth of services

VR services may include job placement, post-secondary education, job-readiness training, acquisition of rehabilitation technology, vehicle modification, adaptive driving training and home and work modifications.

Services and policies vary from state to state depending on available funds, says Carl Suter, CEO of the Council of State Administrators of Vocational Rehabilitation (CSAVR) in Bethesda, Md.

Some states may offer VR services free to eligible individuals, while others require completion of a statement of financial need. If clients have the financial resources, some state VRs may ask them to help pay for certain services.

Just because a service is desired doesn’t mean it’s always approved. Applicants must show that the service is required to help them work efficiently, and must try other funding sources before VR will pay.

Even if a service is approved, the time it takes to receive it also depends on state finances.

“If the state is in a great money crunch, and they’ve got more consumers than they have resources, then sometimes services do take longer to receive,” says Suter.

“It’s like your own family. If the checkbook is a little light this month, you may have to wait until next month until you have some more resources.”

A key member of the VR pit crew is the counselor, who works closely with clients as an advocate, career adviser and resource, both before and after a person has found a job, says Horkan.

Counselors help clients understand their options (based on their interests, capabilities, strengths and weaknesses), then identify the obstacles standing in the way of employment and how to get around them.

After selecting a vocational goal, counselors help clients develop a plan of services to help them achieve their goals.

Self-employment goals

VR provided the funds to help Cyndi Segroves start her own travel agency.

In certain cases, VR will help clients start their own small businesses. After helping evaluate business ideas and options, a plan of action is developed. Clients may be referred to business development specialists or other agencies paid by VR to provide needed self-employment services.

State VRs vary in the ways they fund small businesses, but most require identifying a viable market for the goods or services, and an evaluation of the likelihood of success. In order to receive funding from VR, clients must convince the agency that self-employment is best suited to their circumstances.

In 2005, VR helped Cyndi Segroves of Tucson, Ariz., gain the education, training and funds to be certified as an accessible travel specialist and start her own business, All Access Travel.

When Segroves, who has facioscapulohumeral muscular dystrophy (FSHD) and uses a power wheelchair, went to her local VR, she already knew that she wanted to open an accessible travel agency.

“Working for someone else in a travel agency would’ve been an easier route, but there are so very few travel agencies that want to spend the time or do the research for people with disabilities, so I felt it was better to start my own,” she says.

Segroves, 38, already had her bachelor’s degree in accounting, but VR paid for her to attend classes at a local community college and online classes from the Travel Institute. The agency also funded a business planning class.

VR sent Segroves to a business consultant who helped her conduct market research and develop a business plan. After she presented her business plan to the VR Self-Employment Committee, she received the support needed to start All Access Travel. The whole process took two years.

“It’s a wonderful system, but it is a long, drawn-out process,” Segroves says. “There are no quick fixes — it’s a government entity, and there’s a lot of red tape.”

Higher education goal

Josh Weston drives his modified Dodge Caravan.

In most situations, VR will cover tuition for colleges or universities as long as they’re not private or out of state. In those instances, VR must approve the college and may contribute only the cost of an in-state school. Most VRs require clients to be fulltime students and maintain a passing gradepoint average.

VR also may fund other services necessary for students to receive an education, such as attendant care, and on-campus meals and housing.

Teacher Angela Wrigglesworth recommends starting early. Before she even turned 18, she met with a VR counselor for an evaluation. When she was found eligible for services, they focused on career planning. In just two months, VR was ready to send her to Texas Agricultural and Mechanical University (Texas A&M) in College Station, Texas.

VR paid for all four-and-a-half years of Wrigglesworth’s education, as well as oncampus housing, meal plans while she lived on campus and six hours of attendant care per day. She also was reimbursed for books. In 1999, she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in elementary education.

Josh Weston of Poplar Bluff, Mo., just finished a six-month music business program at Musicians Institute in Hollywood, Calif. Weston, 19, was one of those exceptional cases where VR paid for an out-of-state school.

“They searched for schools in or around Missouri that offered the same program,” says Weston, who has type 3 spinal muscular atrophy. “But they weren’t able to find any, so I ended up having to go out to this school.”

Even so, before VR would pay anything, Weston says he was required to get all the financial aid that he could.

Transportation needs

VR counselor Leslie Horkan (left) says communication is the key to a successful counselor/client relationship.

Vehicle modification is a VR service offered by most states to eligible clients who need accessible transportation to attend work or school.

Most states’ VRs won’t purchase vehicles, however. They require clients to supply the vehicle, which VR will modify by adding adaptive equipment or making structural changes. Some states require clients to buy new vans; others accept used vehicles if they have low mileage and have been inspected by an approved mechanic before modification.

Once the vehicle is approved, VR clients are sent to vendors specializing in vehicle modifications. VR usually will pay for lowered floors or raised roofs, adaptive steering and braking systems, wheelchair tie-downs and lifts, power doors and related controls, and power transfer seat bases.

Weston’s local VR in Harbor Brooks, Mo., paid to modify his new van, and also for special training to drive with modifications. Because he was a new driver, Weston needed to get his driver’s license before VR would fund the modification process.

“Along this process they would interchange modifications to the van,” he says, such as trying out different joysticks “to figure out what was best for me.” After the three months it took to install the modifications, he went to Columbia, Mo., for training in the new van with the new joysticks.

“I think it’s a really great program,” says Weston. “I definitely would encourage anybody who needed help in anything to try and go through Voc Rehab.”

Home modification needs

Bathroom modifications funded by VR give Kathy Payette the independence she needs to keep working from home.

In some states, VR funds home modifications when they’re necessary to achieve employment goals. For example, an accessible bathroom allows someone with a disability to get ready for work in the morning.

Home modifications, which must meet federal, state and local standards, can include widening doorways, constructing ramps and installing lifts and grab bars.

For four years, Kathy M. Payette, who has limb-girdle muscular dystrophy, has worked from her home in De Pere, Wis., as an administrative assistant for Drainage USA. Her husband, David, comes home from work to assist her in the bathroom.

Because Payette’s scooter didn’t fit in her tiny bathroom, she had to walk a few steps in order to use it. But after gallbladder surgery in 2007, even those few steps were no longer possible, and it became obvious that something had to be done to the bathroom.

“I had so much weakness from my surgery, and that’s why I was starting to have more troubles [using the bathroom],” says Payette. “It was looking like I wasn’t going to be able to keep working.” Payette, 49, met with a VR counselor, who found her eligible for postemployment services, because she already had a job but needed VR services to maintain employment. They discussed Payette’s needs and ran their requests through three different channels before getting approval.

Although the approval process took eight months, it was worth the wait for Payette. VR paid to expand her existing bathroom, making it larger and more convenient for the couple’s routine and adding other modifications.

“VR’s concern was that my husband was the only one who could care for me, and that I should be able to have more independence than that,” she says.

Besides the structural work, VR paid for an enlarged bathtub to fit a bathing chair, an ADA sink that Payette could reach from her scooter, additional grab bars and a ceiling lift system with a track running from the bed to the toilet and bathtub. As long as the ceiling lift hygiene sling is placed behind her, she can use the bathroom independently.

“We couldn’t have afforded the modifications without them,” says Payette. “I think that Vocational Rehabilitation is really making it possible for people with disabilities to be productive in their lives.”

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