Vocational rehab counselor helping client

Vocational Rehabilitation: The Origins & Applicable Uses Today

By Anne Shaw and professionally reviewed by The Hartford's Vocational Rehabilitation Team

Vocational rehabilitation in the United States can trace its roots back to World War I. When thousands of soldiers returned home with disabilities, the United States government passed the Soldier Rehabilitation Act of 1918. The goal was to help veterans adjust to their disabilities and train for new jobs.

In 1920, the Act was expanded to include all citizens, not just veterans (Smith-Fess Act), which was the beginning of the Public Vocational Rehabilitation Program (VR). It took another world war to further expand the program.

During WWII, many jobs on the American home front were left vacant, even as droves of women entered the workforce. To help fill the gap, the government expanded VR to include people with mental disabilities.

Over the decades, various amendments to the Act expanded both eligibility and the types of services and support available. In 1965, for instance, people recovering from drug abuse, alcoholism, multiple jail sentences and behavioral disorders were made eligible for support. More people than ever had access to VR services, but many who needed it most got lost in the shuffle. The 1973 Rehab Act sought to ease this issue, and 1992 amendments to the Act created State Rehabilitation Councils. Eventually, the Act became Title IV of the Workforce Investment Act.

Today, it still provides flexible, individualized plans to people with disabilities, and its guiding principles remain the same: All American citizens have a right to independence, and their individual independence can be driven by employment and productivity.

If you have a mental or physical disability and you struggle to find work within your abilities, then you may want to seek help in the form of vocational rehabilitation. Let’s further uncover what it is, who delivers it and how it works.

What Is Vocational Rehabilitation?

Vocational rehabilitation is an individualized employment program that helps people overcome barriers to accessing, maintaining or returning to employment.

It is made up of services designed to help people either enter or return to work whether they live with lifelong disabilities or recently acquired injuries. Counselors in this field focus on serving people with functional, psychological, developmental, cognitive, physical and emotional disabilities or impairments.

What Are Vocational Rehabilitation Counselors?

Vocational rehabilitation counselors specialize in delivering and accessing specific VR services. They help people with disabilities live fuller, more independent lives by helping them deal with the career-related effects of physical and mental disabilities as well as assisting them in securing gainful employment.

Often times, these disabilities have resulted from accidents, illnesses, injuries, congenital disabilities or disease. These professionals guide their clients in searching for and applying to jobs. As they create individual rehabilitation programs, they may work with other professionals, including doctors, family members, occupational therapists, teachers and psychologists.

VR counselors often work for State Vocational Rehabilitation Programs or independently provided Group Benefits offerings. The Hartford’s Group Benefits, for instance, includes 50+ vocational rehabilitation counselors.

What Services Do Vocational Rehabilitation Counselors Provide?

Most VR programs, including free State VR Programs, include the following services:

  • Vocational guidance and counseling to help you understand which types of jobs match up with your strengths and abilities
  • Job and internship placement services
  • Job search assistance and related resources
  • Training programs

At The Hartford, for example, VR counselors offer:

  • Employability Analyses (EAs)
  • Occupational Analyses (OAs)
  • Case management:Return-to-work assistance, including full-duty work releases, transitional work plans and/or accommodation requests
  • Requests, including stay-at-work assistance and help with various types of leave
  • Ergonomic discussions and adaptive equipment (for possible workplace accommodations)

If you believe you could benefit from VR services to find employment and reach your career goals, then consider your eligibility. To be eligible for most state VR programs, you must have a physical or mental impairment that makes it difficult for you to find or maintain a job. If you do and are in high school or beyond, then you’re likely eligible.

Keep in mind that, at the State level, there is a priority listing. Those with more significant disabilities get served first, and some states have individual programs for those who are blind.

How and Where To Apply for Vocational Rehabilitation

To apply for assistance through your state’s VR program, visit their website to submit an application online or locate your local office and apply there.

In addition to public VR programs, each state has a One Stop Center (Careers and Career Information – CareerOneStop). These centers bring together employment and training services, making it easier for job seekers and employers to connect. While they’re designed to meet the needs of all job seekers who want assistance, these centers present another resource to those with disabilities. Services offered include:

  • Work skills exploration
  • Resource libraries (printers, computers, internet access)
  • Resumé assistance
  • Skills training (e.g. job search, occupational, job readiness)
  • Workshops on networking, interviewing and computer skills
  • Employer referrals
  • Career counseling
  • Certifications

Check out LifeLime’s resource library for more helpful information about entering or returning to work.

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