Need Help with Voc Rehab? Disability Rights Tennessee’s Client Assistance Program Can Help

By Bianca Knight

Bianca Knight Henry is an attorney with Disability Rights Tennessee. Her focus is on helping clients of Vocational Rehabilitation through the Client Assistance Program as well as ensuring that Tennesseans with disabilities have equal access to employment opportunities. She attended Belmont University’s College of Law and was recently married.

John, a young man with an intellectual disability, along with his mother contacted Disability Rights Tennessee to seek help in working with Vocational Rehabilitation.  During the summer before his senior year in high school, John visited the postsecondary education program for students with intellectual or developmental disabilities at the local university and wanted to attend this program after graduation. Once he was accepted into the program, John met with his VR counselor and requested VR assistance to attend this program.

John’s VR counselor told John that VR could not assist him with pursuing a postsecondary program but would instead help him prepare for entering the workplace right after high school.  He had been receiving transition school-to-work services for the past couple of years, and his counselor felt he could more easily get a job at one of the places where he had interned.  However, his experience at the internship served to motivate John to aim for higher goals.  John and his mother found information about Disability Rights Tennessee and the Client Assistance Program (CAP) in his paperwork from VR and called DRT for help.

CAP is a part of Disability Rights Tennessee and assists individuals who are applicants or clients of programs under the federal Rehabilitation Act.  This includes the VR program and the Centers for Independent Living.  The Client Assistance Program also provides information about Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which pertains to employment.  CAP provides individual advocacy as well as legal representation, referral services, outreach, and education.

CAP provides clients with information about the VR services and can explain federal regulations as well as state policies and procedures related to these services.  The program regularly provides self-advocacy assistance and informs clients about their rights and responsibilities for achieving the best possible outcome from their VR services.  When there are disagreements between the client and VR, CAP can get directly involved.  CAP is required to resolve disagreements using informal methods, to the maximum extent possible, before resorting to administrative or legal remedies.

Some of the most common issues that the Client Assistance Program helps clients resolve include the following:

  • Lack of communication between client and VR counselor
  • Delays by VR, such as
    -Processing applications
    -Eligibility determination
    -Priority Category determination
    -Development of the Individualized Plan for Employment (IPE)
    -Delivery of VR services
  • Disagreements about the client’s chosen employment objective
  • VR denial of a particular VR service or disagreement about the services to be provided and by whom
  • Limited client understanding of:
    -VR services
    -Financial participation requirements
    -Required paperwork to be signed

John and his mother knew to call DRT because they found the CAP information in the paperwork provided by VR.  VR is required by federal law to provide information about the Client Assistance Program at the following times in a client’s VR case:

  • At application
  • At time of assignment to a Priority Category (not all priority categories are open for the provision of services)
  • At the development of the Individualized Plan for Employment
  • When services are reduced, suspended or terminated

For assistance, call DRT’s intake line at 1-800-342-1660 or email gethelp@disabilityrightstn.org.

 How Did CAP Help John?

 After John reached out to DRT for assistance to resolve his disagreement with VR, a CAP advocate called and discussed the issue with him to understand fully how she could help.  She requested his records from VR, reviewed the information and contacted his counselor.  She advocated for VR to further evaluate John’s aptitudes and interests as well as provide job exploration services so that VR would have documentation supporting how the postsecondary program would be the best option for fostering his goals.  John really enjoys interacting with and helping people and felt certain that working in the hospitality industry would be his ideal career.  The program at the local university would allow him to attend and even participate in some courses in this area as well as to enhance his daily living and socialization skills.

The information gathered in the assessment supported John’s interest in the postsecondary program. VR then agreed it was appropriate to develop John’s plan for services. John’s CAP advocate assisted him in the development of his Individualized Plan for Employment and helped him understand the included services as well as his responsibilities.  Although IPEs are amendable agreements, his advocate wanted to make sure that all appropriate VR services available to help him succeed were included and that the plan was agreeable and signed before closing his case with us.  CAP advocates assist clients on a single issue and exit the case after that issue has been addressed. But we always invite clients to contact CAP again if they encounter problems in the future.

Assistance for Students like John

 While John is at the end of his high school career, students with disabilities who are younger than John are also eligible for services from VR.  VR has provided transition services for many years, but you may have recently heard that VR is implementing new laws and regulations that strengthen and enhance the program. Many people know a little about how VR assists individuals with disabilities who want to start or return to work, maintain their job, or move up in their job. However, did you know that VR is rolling out a pre-employment transition services program with the sole focus of helping students with disabilities prepare themselves to enter the workforce?  Pre-employment transition services now play a huge role in the VR program, based on the understanding that today’s students are tomorrow’s workforce.

 In fact, VR is now mandated to set aside 15% of its total annual federal funding to provide pre-employment transition services to students with a documented disability, with no requirement for students to apply for VR services.  Tennessee students with disabilities ages 14-22 who attend a public or private school, home school, postsecondary school or nontraditional postsecondary institution are eligible to receive these services.   The services are intended to prepare youth with disabilities to move into successful training or employment after graduation. The five core pre-employment transition services designed to facilitate this are:

  • Job exploration counseling
  • Work-based learning experiences in integrated settings, both in and out of the classroom
  • Counseling on postsecondary opportunities
  • Workplace readiness training, including social and independent living skills
  • Self-advocacy skills

 It is our understanding that at this time VR is continuing to finalize plans for providing the pre-employment transition services across the state.  CAP advocates will be available to help those students in Tennessee who encounter issues when they are receiving pre-employment transition services from VR or eligible students who are having difficulty accessing such services, even if they do not have an existing VR case.

Tips for a Successful VR Case

 One of the things we stress to our clients is that the actions they take are critical to a successful VR experience.  CAP advocates encourage clients to take charge of their program and to finish tasks that will lead to employment success. In short, we urge them to be an ACTIVE partner with their VR counselor. VR clients and applicants can do this by:

  • Participating in writing the Individualized Plan for Employment. This includes sharing with the VR counselor their needs and interests. Clients should also take time to explore and understand their options before making a choice.
  • Reading everything they are asked to sign. Clients should never be afraid to ask their VR counselor to explain paperwork. Before signing the IPE, they need to make sure all agreed-upon resources and services are included in the IPE.  Services will only be provided if they are included in the client’s IPE.
  • Understanding their rights as a VR client. At the beginning of the process VR gives applicants a document outlining their rights, and clients should read it! After reading it, clients should ask their VR counselor to clarify any points they do not understand.

Families can find additional self-advocacy tips and strategies to help clients have a successful VR experience on DRT’s website at Disability Rights Tennessee and at TennesseeWorks.

Reaching Out to DRT

John did not fully understand what his rights were when he disagreed with the VR decision.  He did know that he could contact CAP for help because that information was in the paperwork that the Vocational Rehabilitation counselor had given him.  VR clients can also appeal any decision that affects their VR services. It is important to remember that the appeal must be requested with VR within 30 days after the notice of the VR decision is made. Requesting an appeal with VR is not something that a client needs to do alone.  CAP advocates know the steps VR will follow when a client requests an appeal and can help to navigate this process.

For those of you who may not be familiar with Disability Rights Tennessee, DRT is Tennessee’s Protection & Advocacy System, which is mandated by the federal government, and has represented—at no cost—more than 40,000 clients with disabilities since 1978. DRT’s mission is to protect the rights of Tennesseans with disabilities. The Client Assistance Program is operated by DRT. For assistance, call DRT’s intake line at 1-800-342-1660 or email gethelp@disabilityrightstn.org.

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