The Basics of Tennessee’s Vocational Rehabilitation Program

/ November 21, 2017

About the Author

Paula Knisley is the director of Vocational Rehabilitation in the Tennessee Department of Human Services.   Paula has a Bachelor of Science degree in Special Education and a Master’s degree in Blind Rehabilitation/Orientation & Mobility.  She has worked for Tennessee state government for more than 29 years in a variety of positions related to vocational rehabilitation.  Those positions include orientation & mobility specialist at the Tennessee Rehabilitation Center in Smyrna, supervisor of the Vision Impairment Services Unit at TRC-Smyrna, VR  field supervisor, director of Field Operation for Blind Services, and director of Vocational Rehabilitation.

Our hope is that this blog will offer information you want to know, so if you have a question you want answered about employment for people with disabilities or other mysteries of the world of work, please email me at

By Paula Knisley

Tennessee’s Vocational Rehabilitation Program is committed to supporting people with disabilities reach their career goals in competitive, integrated workplaces. The Tennessee Department of Human Services, which includes VR, believes in the well-being of all – because when our friends, neighbors, and community as a whole succeed – we all benefit. Services provided through the VR program represent just one way the Department of Human Services is helping to build a thriving Tennessee. When our VR clients seek and reach success through employment, they contribute significantly their skills and attitude to inclusive, diverse work environments. Here are the basics of how the VR program works, including a rundown on recently implemented initiatives:

VR Program Eligibility Requirements

A determination of VR program eligibility is based on the following:

  • The person has a physical, mental or sensory impairment that results in a substantial impediment to employment;
  • VR services are required to prepare for, secure, retain or regain employment consistent with the person’s strengths, abilities, capabilities, interests, and informed choice; and
  • The person can benefit from VR services in terms of an employment outcome.

VR counselors help determine eligibility for services. As you can see from the criteria above, VR eligibility does not include a financial component.  The eligibility process can move more quickly if the applicant provides his or her photo identification card, Social Security card, medical information regarding disability and doctor contact information.

Pre-Employment Transition Services

VR has begun implementing Pre-Employment Transition Services. The federal Workforce Innovation Opportunity Act, which was signed into law in 2014, says five Pre-Employment Transition Services are to be provided to students ages 14-22 years old.  Services include:

  1. Job Exploration – Exploring the world of work and career choices.
  2. Work-Based Learning – Engaging in paid or non-paid work experiences that may be in school and/or after school.
  3. Workplace Readiness – Preparing the student for the workplace.
  4. Self-Advocacy – Helping students learn more about themselves, their disability, and how to advocate for themselves.
  5. Post-Secondary Counseling and Enrollment Assistance – Exploring options for students seeking careers that require post-secondary education.

You will notice that job coaching is not one of the five Pre-Employment Transition Services.  WIOA has determined that job coaching is an individual service that can only be provided to VR clients.  So, for instance, if a student would require someone on the job-site to provide on-going training and support necessary to assist him or her with the specific demands of the job , that level of support is only available once the student becomes eligible for VR services.

WIOA is very clear that this group of services should be provided in conjunction and cooperation with state departments of education and local education agencies. The five services are offered to supplement the transition planning under IDEA, not to supplant what is currently provided by schools. However, Pre-Employment Transition Services are also available to students with disabilities who do NOT have an Individualized Education Program. Students with 504 plans, and even students with disabilities who have no IEP or 504 can receive these services. Currently, VR is offering Pre-Employment Transition Services through two arrangements:

  • Transition School to Work grants – funds are awarded to local education agencies to hire personnel to provide the five services
  • Community Rehabilitation Providers – through Letters of Agreement or Contracts, Community Rehabilitation Providers, which are agencies that generally offer a range of service supports to adults with disabilities, provide services within local schools to groups or individuals. Examples include Goodwill, Access, and the STAR Center.

Parents must give permission for students under 18 years old to participate. Individuals over 18 can sign for themselves, unless they have a conservator. As the program becomes established within a school, notices are sent to parents with a permission form. Upon return, one of the organizations listed above will begin to provide the needed Pre-ETS services.

If the student is not in a traditional school setting, students/families can contact their local VR office and request one or all of the five services.  Locations can be found at Parents must provide proof of the student’s disability. The individual will be referred to a local Community Rehabilitation Provider for service(s).

Remember, Pre-Employment Transition Services are only available to students.  When the student leaves the education system (traditional or non-traditional), they are no longer eligible to receive Pre-Employment Transition Services.

Additional Information:

No two VR approaches are the same – It is important to note, VR services are individualized to match the needs and goals of each client. For example, two clients may have the same diagnosis, but their Individualized Plan for Employment will be specific to address their needs, preferences, locally available resources, and comfort level for the agreed-upon action steps.  Although the approaches may be different, the VR goal is the same – help the client reach their employment goal.

Building relationships with employers – The VR program engages businesses in different ways.  Our statewide Business Employment Consultants network with employers and market vocational services to help meet employers’ needs. Through partnerships with each local American Job Center, VR employees gain access to businesses and develop relationships that lead to employment for clients.  In addition, Tennessee’s VR program participates in the National Employment Team sponsored by the Council of Administrators of Vocational Rehabilitation.  The NET provides access to national business partnerships.

Have more questions? Contact Vocational Rehabilitation at (615) 313-4891 or visit

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