The history of vocational rehabilitation

1917- Smith-Hughes Act

This act made federal monies available to states on a matching basis for vocational education programs. It established the Federal Board for Vocational Education which later administered the veteran and civilian vocational rehabilitation programs.

1918 - Soldier's Rehabilitation Act

This act created a vocational rehabilitation program for disabled World War I veterans. It was administered by the Federal Board for Vocational Education.

1920 - Smith-Fess Act

Signed into law by President Woodrow Wilson, the Smith-Fess Act (also known as the Civilian Vocational Rehabilitation Act) establishes the Vocational Rehabilitation program for Americans with disabilities. At this point, only individuals with physical disabilities are eligible for services.

South Carolina's vocational rehabilitation program began in 1923 under the SC Department of Education.

1935 - Social Security Act

The Social Security Act of 1935 establishes an income maintenance system for those unable to work by providing benefits to unemployed individuals and retirees. As part of the Social Security Act vocational rehabilitation was made a permanent federal program.

1936 - Randolph-Sheppard Act

This act authorized blind individuals to operate vending stands on federal property. It also authorized a study to determine types of work individuals with visual disabilities could perform.

1938 - Wagner-O'Day Act

This act required the federal government to purchase certain products from workshops for the blind, thereby expanding employment opportunities in those workshops.

1943 - Barden-Lafollette Act

This was an extremely important act in that it expanded eligibility for vocational rehabilitation services to mentally retarded and psychiatrically handicapped individuals. It also expanded the types of physical restoration services that could be provided to individuals with disabilities, and provided maintenance funds, but both required establishment of financial need. The act also expanded vocational rehabilitation services for the blind.

1945 - Declaration of "National Employ the Physically Handicapped Week"

The return of service members with disabilities from World War II sparks public interest in the contributions of people with disabilities in the workplace. On August 11, 1945, President Harry S. Truman approves a Congressional resolution declaring the first week in October "National Employ the Physically Handicapped Week.' In 1962, the word "physically" is removed to acknowledge the employment needs and contributions of individuals with all types of disabilities.

Vocational Rehabilitation Act Amendments of 1954

This law increased the federal share of funding from 50-50 to 3 federal dollars for every 2 state dollars, and expanded services for mentally retarded and psychiatrically handicapped individuals. The act authorized research and demonstration grants, extension and improvement grants, and funds for facility development. Grants were also provided to colleges and universities to train rehabilitation counselors to work with individuals with disabilities.

1956 - Creation of Social Security Disability Insurance

Congress passes the Social Security Amendments of 1956, which create a Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) program for workers with disabilities aged 50 to 64. Additional amendments two years later extend SSDI benefits to the dependents of workers with disabilities.

The South Carolina Vocational Rehabilitation program became a stand-alone agency in 1957.

Vocational Rehabilitation Act Amendments of 1965

This act expanded the federal-state funding ratio to 75-25. It provided for 6 and 18 month extended evaluations, making it possible to provide services prior to program acceptance. The act eliminated economic need for any vocational rehabilitation service. It also extended eligibility to "behavior disorders," making it possible to serve public offenders, those with drug and alcohol problems.

Rehabilitation Act of 1973

This act redirected the vocational rehabilitation program making its first priority to serve severely disabled individuals. The behavior disorder category was discontinued. Consumer involvement was stressed by requiring their involvement in the development of their Individualized Written Rehabilitation Program (IWRP). The consumer had to sign the plan to indicate they understood it and approved. At this time there was political debate about turning the program into a comprehensive rather than strictly vocational rehabilitation program. The act authorized funding for demonstration independent living centers that could work with individuals regardless of vocational potential, but a vocational objective and feasibility of reaching it was maintained as an eligibility requirement for the state-federal program. The act also stressed program evaluation and supported rehabilitation research.

Title V

This was the section of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 that advanced civil rights for individuals with disabilities.

Section 501: Required nondiscrimination in hiring handicapped individuals in the federal government. All executive branches of the federal government were required to develop affirmative action plans for hiring, placing and advancing handicapped individuals. Section 502: Established the Architectural and Transportation Barriers and Compliance Board to oversee compliance to the Architectural Barriers Act of 1968.

Section 503: This section prohibited discrimination against handicapped individuals in employment by any federal contractor or subcontractor receiving $2,500 or more. A written affirmative action plan was required of all employers contracting with the government and having 50 or more employees or a federal contract of $50,000 or more.

Section 504: This section prohibits discrimination against qualified handicapped individuals in any federally supported program or activity. It applied to any organization receiving federal funds such as hospitals, school districts, and state public welfare offices, and colleges and universities.

1975 - Education for All Handicapped Children Act/Individuals with Disabilities Education Act

President Ford signs the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EAHCA), which requires public schools to provide a "free appropriate public education' to all students, including those with disabilities. The Act is renamed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) in 1990, and amendments in 1997 add a focus on transition outcomes for students with disabilities exiting high school and pursuing post-secondary options, including employment.

Rehabilitation Act Amendments of 1978

Among other things, these amendments provided grant funds to support a separate independent living program.

1978 - “Try Another Way” and Supported Employment

The “Try Another Way” system, pioneered by special education teacher, Marc Gold, seeks to teach persons with intellectual disabilities to perform complex tasks. This provides the instructional foundation for the concept of Supported Employment, a model for people with disabilities to participate in the competitive labor market, helping them find meaningful jobs and providing ongoing support from a team of professionals. 

1982 - Job Training Partnership Act

The Job Training Partnership Act of 1982 establishes federal assistance programs to prepare youth and unskilled adults for entry into the labor force and provides job training to economically disadvantaged and other individuals facing serious barriers to employment, including those with disabilities.

1983 - Transportation as an Employment Support

Across the nation, disability advocates draw attention to the importance of transportation as a critical link to employment as well as education, recreation and all other aspects of community life. A leading player in this movement is ADAPT (originally American Disabled for Accessible Public Transit), a grassroots activist organization that takes action in cities across the United States to bring attention to barriers to transportation, with a focus on the need for lifts on buses.

1986 - Employment Opportunities for Disabled Americans Act

The Employment Opportunities for Disabled Americans Act enhances work incentives for people with disabilities under the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program by making permanent section 1619 of the Social Security Act, which provides for special SSI payments and Medicaid coverage while eligible individuals make attempts to work.

Rehabilitation Act Amendments of 1986

A major feature of this act was that it authorized the state rehabilitation agencies to provide supported employment services to individuals with severe disabilities who could not traditionally be placed in competitive employment. It accordingly deemphasized the traditional model of long-term placement in extended sheltered workshops. The act also mandated increased use of rehabilitation engineering services and client assistance programs. Like the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, it increased the focus on services to the most severely disabled consumers.

1990 - Americans with Disabilities Act

President George H. W. Bush signs the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) into law. Modeled on the Civil Rights Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, the ADA stems from collective efforts by advocates in the preceding decades and is the most comprehensive disability rights legislation in history. Its employment provisions prohibit discrimination in job application procedures, hiring, advancement and termination and provide for equal access to workers' compensation; job training; and other terms, conditions and privileges of employment.

Rehabilitation Act Amendments of 1992

The Act emphasized employment as the primary goal of vocational rehabilitation (VR). Specifically, they mandate presumptive employability, meaning applicants should be presumed to be employable unless proven otherwise, and state that eligible individuals must be provided choice and increased control in determining VR goals and objectives, determining services, service providers and methods of service provision. This legislation also strongly emphasized consumer involvement in the policies and procedures of state rehabilitation agencies, and mandated that state rehabilitation agencies establish Rehabilitation Advisory Councils with the majority of members being individuals with disabilities.

1996 - Telecommunications Act

This Act-the first revision of telecommunications law since the 1930s-requires telecommunications manufacturers and service providers to ensure that equipment is designed, developed and fabricated to be accessible to and usable by individuals with disabilities, if readily achievable. At its signing, President Bill Clinton addresses technology's growing role in all aspects of life, including employment.

1996 - Work Opportunity Tax Credit

The Small Business Job Protection Act of 1996 creates the Work Opportunity Tax Credit (WOTC) program, which provides a federal tax credit to companies that hire workers from populations that face high rates of unemployment, including people with certain disabilities.

Workforce Investment Act and Rehabilitation Act Amendments of 1998

This act combined rehabilitation legislation with other federally supported job training programs in block grants to the states. The purpose was to provide a "one-stop delivery system" for individuals needing help in securing employment and to facilitate the sharing of employment resources (such as job leads) by the involved agencies. The act meant that individuals with disabilities would be served by a variety of programs and would not be strictly dependent upon vocational rehabilitation. The act further increased the emphasis on consumer control over their vocational rehabilitation program (now called Individual Plan for Employment rather than IWRP), emphasized supported employment and client assistance projects, and called for services to consumers by "qualified personnel."

1998 - Section 508

Amendments to the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 require federal agencies to make their electronic and information technology accessible to people with disabilities. Under the new rules, which comprise Section 508 of the law, agencies must provide members of the public, as well as employees with disabilities, access to information comparable to that afforded those without disabilities.

2001 - Ticket to Work Program

The Social Security Administration launches the Ticket to Work and Self-Sufficiency program. The voluntary program aims to increase the financial independence of Social Security Disability Insurance and Supplemental Security Income beneficiaries ages 18 – 64 by providing improved options for receiving employment services and maintaining publicly funded healthcare.

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009

 President Obama signs the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act as Vice President Biden watches in Denver, Colo. on Feb. 17, 2009.
(White House photo by Pete Souza)

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 substantially increases funding for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and provides more than $500 million for vocational rehabilitation services, including job training, education and placement.

2009 - Campaign for Disability Employment

The Campaign for Disability Employment is launched by the U.S. Department of Labor's Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP). This multi-organization initiative uses positive messages and images to encourage employers and others to recognize the value and talent people with disabilities bring to America’s workplaces and economy. 

2010 - Executive Order 13548

On the 20th anniversary of the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act, President Barack Obama signs Executive Order 13548 – Increasing Federal Employment of Individuals with Disabilities (Schedule A hiring).  This directive calls on federal departments and agencies to increase the recruitment, hiring and retention of people with disabilities.

2013 - Updates to Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act

The U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs updates regulations implementing Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act, which prohibits federal contractors and subcontractors from discriminating in employment against people with disabilities and requires them to take affirmative action to recruit, hire, promote and retain people with disabilities. The updates strengthen these affirmative action provisions.

Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act of 2014

WIOA is designed to help job seekers access employment, education, training, and support services to succeed in the labor market and to match employers with the skilled workers they need to compete in the global economy. The enactment of WIOA provides opportunity for reforms to ensure the American Job Center system is job-driven—responding to the needs of employers and preparing workers for jobs that are available now and in the future. WIOA supersedes the Workforce Investment Act of 1998 and amends the Adult Education and Family Literacy Act, the Wagner-Peyser Act, and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

Adapted from materials developed by the Department of Rehabilitation and Mental Health Counseling, College of Arts and Sciences, University of South Florida, and the U.S. Department of Labor's Office of Disability Employment Policy.