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New Vocational Rehabilitation funding is crucial for Minnesotans with disabilities

Shawntera Hardy

Minnesota’s Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) program empowers Minnesotans with disabilities by providing employment services such as job counseling, training, job search assistance, and job placement services. The VR program assists more than 17,000 Minnesotans per year with more than 5,000 new participants enrolling each year.

Several initiatives are dramatically changing the way employment services are offered to people with disabilities and have increased demand for VR services. The federal Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) took full effect in July 2016. At the same time, Minnesota’s Olmstead Plan – a comprehensive strategy that seeks to achieve full inclusion in all areas of life for Minnesotans with disabilities – gained momentum. These changes will move the state toward a place where Minnesotans with disabilities have the opportunity, both now and in the future, to live more independently close to their families and friends, to engage in productive employment and to participate in community life.

Of significance under WIOA, two new unfunded mandates are putting significant direct financial pressure on VR. First, WIOA requires VR to use a substantial portion of its already limited funding for pre-employment transition services to students with disabilities, regardless of whether they have applied for VR services. Second, WIOA requires a new activity for VR in that staff are required to meet one-on-one with individuals currently receiving subminimum wage to determine if they would like to pursue competitive, integrated employment.

A surging demand for VR services

A Star Tribune article last October described the threats looming over VR as it struggled to meet a surging demand for employment services for hundreds of Minnesotans with disabilities. Since last fall, the demand for VR services has grown nearly three times faster than anticipated, worsening the budgetary pressures. New funding has become even more urgent. To put it simply, without additional state funding, Minnesotans with disabilities needing access to new services will be denied.

In his budget proposal for the 2018-2019 biennium, Gov. Mark Dayton proposed an additional $7 million ($3.5 million per year) for Minnesota’s VR program. This investment is absolutely crucial to ensure that Minnesotans with the most significant disabilities receive employment counseling and training services, to ensure that they are able to find and keep a job. We need the state legislature to join Gov. Dayton in identifying VR as a priority by authorizing this investment.

Without additional funding for the next biennium, VR will almost certainly have to stop enrolling all new participants – probably no later than October. If that happens, an estimated 5,800 Minnesotans per year would be placed on an indefinite waiting list.

The consequences of this would indeed be devastating. In 2004, VR had to stop serving new enrollees because of funding constraints. The number of individuals waiting for services grew to more than 5,000. This had great impact on schools and other community organizations that refer Minnesotans to the program because VR couldn’t even say when, or if, it would be able to start accepting new applicants again.

A substantial employment-rate gap

The gap between the unemployment rate of those with and without disabilities in Minnesota and the U.S. is substantial. In 2014, the unemployment rate for people with any type of disability was 9.6 percent in Minnesota and 14.8 percent nationally. This compares with 3.8 percent in Minnesota and 6 percent nationally for those with no disability.

Suffice it to say, Minnesotans with disabilities deserve to be able to access meaningful, independent employment, and the individualized employment services provided by VR is the way to achieve this.

The magnitude of the current transformation is similar to what occurred in the 1970s and ’80s, when state hospitals and institutions were closed, and it aligns closely with the mandates and goals of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. It represents in many ways the next major shift in the long-term evolution of the disability services system, driven by an urgent nationwide commitment to achieving full inclusion of people with disabilities, specifically those with the most significant disabilities.

All of this is long past due – and very much to be applauded. But it is placing unprecedented pressures on the nationwide system of which Minnesota’s VR program is a part, and without new state funding, Minnesota’s most significantly disabled will be the ones paying the price.

Shawntera Hardy was appointed by Gov. Mark Dayton to serve as commissioner of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) in April 2016. As commissioner of the state’s principal economic development agency, she is focused on creating jobs, promoting business recruitment, expansion, and retention, advancing state workforce training and development, and supporting international trade and community development. 

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