More federal money needed to get disabled into work force

May 26, 2000|By Robert A. Burns

TODAY, because of the work of the public vocational rehabilitation program, advances in technology and the nation's booming economy, more and more employers are looking to individuals with disabilities to join their workforce in order to ensure that their company is able to maintain its competitive edge.

A seldom-recognized force in the struggle to enhance employment opportunities for people with disabilities is the Maryland Division of Rehabilitation Services (DORS), this state's public vocational rehabilitation program.

For more than 70 years, often in the face of great prejudice toward people with disabilities, DORS has helped individuals to prepare for jobs. Every state has a vocational rehabilitation agency whose purpose is to assist people with disabilities to obtain the skills, training and confidence necessary to be successful in the workplace.

Maryland DORS is extremely effective in its mission because of its strong partnerships and collaboration with private and non-private organizations, colleges and universities, local school systems and, most importantly, employers.

DORS counselors are situated in 20 local offices throughout our state. These highly skilled professionals assess the skills and interests of people with disabilities, help develop individualized plans for employment and purchase or arrange for the services and training they need to become qualified -- and sought-after -- job candidates.

Last year in Maryland, DORS helped 3,011 persons with disabilities across the state to enter the workforce. These people earned nearly $46 million in wages in their first year of work and paid about $4.8 million in taxes. The 3,011 people employed last year will continue to earn wages and pay state and federal taxes far in excess of the investment made in their employment future by the public vocational rehabilitation program.

A Maryland study indicates that more than 87 percent of individuals served through this program are still working after one year, the highest job retention rate of any work-force program. Customer satisfaction surveys demonstrate that 89 percent of individuals are satisfied, very satisfied, or extremely satisfied with services provided by their DORS counselor.

Despite the extraordinary success of the public vocational rehabilitation program, half of all states restrict the number of people with disabilities who can receive services because of inadequate resources. Maryland is among the states that must restrict access to its services even though the state's contribution exceeds the "required state match" under the federal funding formula.

The federal dollar is the engine that drives the public vocational rehabilitation program. Now more than ever, the federal government needs to fulfill its leadership responsibilities and its obligations to its citizens to address the chronic under-funding of this national program.

It is estimated that an additional $600 million in federal funding would eliminate waiting lists in every state and increase the number of people with disabilities going to work by more than 54,000.

In Maryland, only 40 percent of people with disabilities are working (somewhat better than the national rate of 33 percent) even though an overwhelming majority of unemployed people with disabilities want to work. Public vocational rehabilitation services, with its partnerships with businesses and other service providers, is the answer to the disparate realities of unemployed individuals wanting employment and, at the same time, businesses frustrated by the lack of skilled job applicants.

We are very fortunate that Maryland's congressional delegation understands this and is very supportive of DORS and public vocational rehabilitation services. It will take those 10 strong voices and many of their colleagues in Washington to begin to address this issue and to assure that all Americans, including those with significant disabilities, get an opportunity to realize their dreams to be active, contributing members of our communities.

Maryland's businesses and its citizens deserve Washington's leadership on this important issue.

Robert A. Burns is the assistant state superintendent in rehabilitation services and is responsible for the administration of the public vocational rehabilitation services program in Maryland.

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