Corrected: An earlier version of this article misidentified the job title of Allison Wohl. She is the policy director for the Association of People Supporting Employment First.
The Trump administration, which has already shown its willingness to cut red tape, has its eyes on a new target: regulations meant to steer youths and adults with disabilities to jobs where they work alongside people who do not have disabilities.
The regulations come from the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, which passed with bipartisan support in 2014. The law is overseen by the Rehabilitation Services Administration, which is a part of the U.S. Department of Education.
The Education Department has taken the first step needed to change the regulations: In May, it posted a notice alerting the public that a “notice of proposed rulemaking” was coming by September. A department spokeswoman said the department is considering “all options” for addressing stakeholder concerns.
Among the changes in the workforce law is a requirement that state vocational-rehabilitation agencies take a more active role in supporting youths with disabilities who are making the transition from school to work.
Passed in 2014 by Congress with bipartisan support, the WIOA may be a new focus of a Trump administration open to taking a new look at regulations approved in prior years. While the current concerns center on the settings where people with disabilities can work, the WIOA has several other provisions, many of which directly affect youth with disabilities. They include:
Money for transition programs: State vocational rehabilitation agencies, which help people with disabilities meet their employment goals, must now spend 15 percent of their total job search and training money on programs aimed at youth transitioning from school into postsecondary education or employment. That total funding amounts to $3.2 billion in federal money in fiscal 2018, plus a required 21 percent state match. Vocational rehabilitation agencies also must coordinate with local school districts to provide those services.
Additional focus on youth with the most severe disabilities: Money from the federal government—about $27 million in fiscal 2018—flows to states through “state supported employment grants,” aimed at helping people with the most severe disabilities. The new law says half of that money must be spent on youth up to age 24.
Restrictions on pay below minimum wage: Before a person under 24 can be placed by an agency in a job paying less than the minimum wage, that person must go through transition services and career counseling, and must be provided career counseling on a yearly basis to be informed of other job options.
Sources: U.S. Department of Education, U.S. Department of Labor
The law also states that those agencies should maximize the opportunity that youths and adults with disabilities have to engage in what the law calls “competitive integrated employment.”
Such jobs are meant to be “typically found in the community,” in the words of the statute’s regulations, and should allow the person with a disability to interact with colleagues or clients who do not have disabilities.
The regulations do not forbid people with disabilities from choosing jobs that don’t meet those standards. But many employers of people with disabilities say that workers are being steered away from good jobs because those positions are not considered to meet those standards.
When a client of a vocational-rehabilitation agency takes a job that is not considered to be competitive, integrated employment, it doesn’t count as a successful job placement by the agency. That means the agency doesn’t get federal money for a job placement.
Employers of people with disabilities want those regulations changed.
But supporters of the regulations as they stand say there’s no need for the Education Department to revamp the rules. Instead, they say, the department could issue revised guidance to states, making it clear that job placements are individualized decisions, and that clients of vocational-rehabilitation agencies can make an informed choice of job setting.
The controversy mirrors the inclusion debate among students with disabilities in the K-12 system. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act strongly pushes for students to be in general education to the maximum extent appropriate, but also says such decisions must be made on a student-by-student basis.
That has led, in some cases, to complaints that students are in inclusive settings when such settings are inappropriate for their needs, or that they are isolated from their peers when they would be better served in a general education setting.
“I think that everything you do to inspire people to reach further is fantastic,” said Kate McSweeny, the vice president of governmental relations for ACCSES, an organization pushing for the regulations to be changed. ACCSES, short for American Congress of Community Supports and Employment Services, represents 1,200 organizations that provide job counseling and employment to people with disabilities around the country.
“But we can’t leave people behind,” McSweeny continued, through regulations that frown on certain job settings. “Everyone is not going to excel working someplace that people think they should.”
David Hoff, the program director for the Institute for Community Inclusion at the University of Massachusetts in Boston, said that segregated settings were once considered to be the best option for people with disabilities. But times have changed, he said.
“What we have learned is that with the right supports, most people with disabilities of working age can work successfully in the community,” Hoff said. For him, it is a civil rights issue. People worry that individuals with disabilities will be discriminated against in the workplace, but visibility is the answer, he said.
“Society will never accept people with disabilities, unless they are there,” he said.
Allison Wohl, the policy director for the Association of People Supporting Employment First, said she’s concerned that if the regulations are opened up for a rewrite, “everything’s on the table” while the law and its regulations are still relatively new.
There’s nothing in the regulations that say someone can’t be placed in a sheltered workshop,” she said, using a term for a supervised workplace primarily for people with disabilities.
“What they’re saying that people have to be given an opportunity to try competitive integrated employment if that’s what they want, and they have to have informed choice around that,” Wohl said.
While the workforce act passed four years ago, it is the regulations that came out in 2016, plus a “frequently asked questions” document released the following January, that appear to be at the center of the controversy.
For example, the January 2017 document specifically says that certain jobs are generally considered “not typically found in the community,” and thus, would not count as competitive integrated employment.
That includes jobs funded through AbilityOne, one of the nation’s largest sources of employment for people who are blind or have significant disabilities. AbilityOne provides services and goods to the federal government, and 75 percent of its direct labor must be provided by people with disabilities.
An example: In New Britain, Conn., people with disabilities package and mail the chains used for military dog tags, said Sandie Lavoy, the senior vice president of community rehabilitation services for CW Resources. The organization provides job counseling as well as jobs for people with disabilities through AbilityOne contracts, Lavoy said. But those jobs aren’t considered competitive integrated employment, because most of the workers have disabilities.
Other positions, such as in food service, landscaping, or janitorial services, face similar issues, she said.
“I really believe there needs to be a formalized change,” she said. “Any language which causes people to more narrowly define what is acceptable and restrict opportunities needs to be removed.”
Karen Lee, the executive director of SEEC—Seeking Employment, Equality and Community for People With Developmental Disabilities—said the regulations just spell out what has long been considered to be optimal outcomes for people with significant disabilities. Lee’s organization provides an array of supports, including job coaching, to people with disabilities.
The argument that people with disabilities choose certain jobs may just reflect that counselors don’t have the skills or resources to help them find other options, she said.
“The argument to continue to isolate and segregate is just weak,” Lee said. “Why should a person’s opportunity be squelched by the [counselor] who is being paid to help them to have a different life?”
A version of this article appeared in the July 18, 2018 edition of Education Week as Trump Team Set to Revisit ‘Voc Rehab’ Regulations