Increasing Access to Education and Vocational Rehabilitation

Acting Assistant Secretary Michael K. Yudin addresses the crowd, while RSA Commissioner Janet LaBreck listens behind. Photo courtesy of the National Federation of the Blind.

Senior leadership from the Department of Education and Rehabilitation Services Administration spoke about a “Dear Colleagues” letter that they circulated to state departments of education last summer. Citing research from the Institute on Blindness at Louisiana Tech University, the letter reinforced the Department’s position (based upon Congressional intent) that braille is to be the default reading media for students who are blind or have low vision.

In his remarks—made to a packed ballroom of blind people participating in the annual legislative event with the National Federation of the Blind—Michael K. Yudin, Acting Assistant Secretary for Special Education and Rehabilitative Services, indicated that his team would continue to fight for access on behalf of students (young and older) with disabilities to educational materials. He further mentioned that, soon, the Department would require all programs that prepare teachers to work with blind and visually-impaired students to “include coursework and competencies in Unified English Braille.” We at the Institute on Blindness are proud to say that we have already met this requirement.

In her remarks, Commissioner Janet LaBreck—who oversees the Rehabilitation Services Administration—stated her personal belief that education and vocational rehabilitation cannot be “divorced” from one another. While not a policy statement, she may have been referring to the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee’s vote last summer on a proposal to move the vocational rehabilitation program from the Department of Education to the Department of Labor.

The text of Mr. Yudin’s and Ms. LaBreck’s comments are below, including a question asked by Marc Maurer, President of the National Federation of the Blind, about the inaccessibility of testing associated with the Common Core State Standards.


MICHAEL K. YUDIN, Acting Assistant Secretary for Special Education and Rehabilitative Services

At OSERS, we start with expectations. We start with the expectations that our kids are going to be successful; our kids are going to be able to learn, develop and thrive alongside their peers; it’s the expectations that our kids are going to have equitable access to education. Kids cannot learn the content if they don’t have access to it.

Ultimately, it’s about expectations that our kids are going to graduate from high school, go to college and be career ready. They’re going to have the opportunities to enjoy independent living and full community participation.

It starts early with high quality preschool, high quality early intervention. We have some great opportunities in our office to oversee services provided to infants and toddlers. Parents have the same expectations for their kids with disabilities as those without disabilities. You know, I got an e-mail today, literally an hour and a half ago, from a parent who I met recently. Her baby daughter is profoundly deaf and she was a baby and the mom said, “I know I’m going to struggle. I know that I’m always going to have these challenges with my daughter at school.” But then she found the right sets of programs and supports and, literally, in her e-mail she wrote, “I never should have had lowered expectations for my kid.” No parent should ever have lowered expectations for their kids.

Parents are the greatest, greatest resource to changing the culture of education and expectations for our educators and for our folks in our communities. You know, when I said it starts with early learning, and it absolutely does, but for us in OSERS, we’re looking at changing the dynamics here. You know, we need to start focusing on reading and math and graduation rates. The data show that, for students with disabilities, graduation rates across the board are unacceptably low. We have states in this country, some of the largest states in this country, where the literacy rates of students with disabilities is 15 percent of high school proficiency levels.

We have states in this country — some of the largest — states in this country where the literacy rates of students with disabilities is 15 percent of high school level proficiency. Fifteen percent! We also know that there are states that systematically exclude students with disabilities from accountability systems. Students with disabilities are subject to disciplinary strategies that exclude them from the classroom. Does that make any sense at all? It absolutely does not. Kids who need the most attention are actually being told to leave the classroom. They need more learning time, not less.

We know that four out of five students with disabilities say that the primary goal of education is to go to college. Four out of five! That’s the general view of young people…that their primary view is to go to college. Unfortunately, though, for students with disabilities, that’s not the case. We know that they’re more likely to drop out of high school, less likely to graduate to high school, less likely to graduate with the skills needed to be successful in college, less likely to enroll in post-secondary, less likely to be employed and more likely to earn less. In fact, young people with disabilities are more likely to live in poverty than their peers.

There’s so much that we need to do. It’s all about access. That’s why I’m thrilled to have the braille, dear-colleague letter. It’s about ensuring that kids have access to the curriculum. Moving forward, we’re going to require that all of our trencher preparation programs that provide support and prepare teachers for work with visually-impaired students to include coursework and competencies in Unified English Braille.

It’s about opportunities. It’s about finding every opportunity where our kids can be successful and have the chance to succeed. It’s not just about kids; in our office, we are cradle to career. So we have a lot of adult programs in the office. One of the things that I’m really excited about that we just entered into an agreement with our Office of Vocational Adult Education (OVAE). It’s career, technical education and adult education. We are working with OVAE, folks may be aware of our efforts in OSEP which is Bookshare. Bookshare provides access to hundreds of thousands of pieces of instructional materials in accessible formats. We are now working with OVAE to ensure that eligible adult learners with print and visual disabilities who are part of our supported literacy programs also have access to Bookshare. It’s all about access. Just want to thank you for the opportunity to be here and hope that you have fantastic, successful meetings.

JANET LaBRECK, Commissioner of the Rehabilitation Services Administration

Good afternoon, everyone. I am so happy and excited to be here this evening with you. I want to thank Dr. Maurer and all the people with NFB who invited us and gave us this opportunity to share an update with you and to just spend some time with you as well. The work that you all do is so incredibly important. Some of the remarks that Michael just made certainly transition over to RSA. We are critical partners in this process and it is our responsibility as national leaders to bring these issues to light. Not only to bring them to light but to address them in a way that is going to be incredibly sensitive and poignant to the extent that we have to take the time evaluate how it is that we’ve done business in our offices at RSA, as well as OSERS, how we hold our leadership nationally accountable for what it is that comes out in the form of legislation that comes out on behalf of individuals with disabilities, but also increase our expectations. You heard about Michael talk about that.

I want to just say to that with regard to education, that when I was being interviewed for this particular position, what was important for me was to work with someone who understood that you cannot talk about education without talking about vocational rehabilitation. You cannot talk about vocational rehabilitation without talking about expectations attached to individuals with education. That in fact, if we don’t address those, we don’t have a plan for determining how it is that we can go forward, that it will be very unlikely that individuals with disabilities will have a successful experience as well as opportunity to become economically self sufficient through employment.

Literacy, as Michael mentioned, is critical to that. But I also want to take a moment and share some pretty basic statistics with you and some data that truly does reflect where we are going, and more importantly where we need to be, for the future of this program.

  • In FY2012, approximately 323,000 individuals were served by the vocational rehabilitation program.
  • Of that 323,000, approximately 18,000 (or a little more than 5 percent of that population) were individuals who were blind or visually impaired.
  • Sixty-six of those individuals in FY2012 realized a successful, competitive employment outcome.
  • Eighty percent of those individuals were successful at accomplishing a wage that was equal to or exceeded the minimum wage or prevailing wage. The average wage of individuals in FY2012 who were legally blind was $13.79 per hour. That’s more than $2 per hour earned by all other individuals with disabilities in FY2012 with other impairments. that’s significant.

We need to do better, obviously. We need to make sure that trend continues and the only way to do that is to better align our services and supports for individuals who are blind.

I am so excited to be working with OSERS and with the Assistant Secretary to ensure that our programs are not only connected on paper but that we are functioning as partners. We need to make sure that you are part of that process, we need to make sure that we are holding ourselves accountable and that we need to hold our grantees accountable for the outcomes. We need to make sure that we are giving them the tools and access that they need to do the jobs that they need to do. That transitioning our thought process is how we initially thought about vocational rehabilitation as our consumers; but they’re not just our costumers, they are our partners and most importantly they are our future. This program is a viable, important program to individuals in this country with disabilities. As we look at accountability, performance, and new innovative services to serving individuals with disabilities nationally, we can do this. This program is a good program. It needs to change, we need innovation, we need new ideas, and we will be looking to the community for that. So, I could not have come into this position at a better time. I am really excited about that. The work that you do is integral and very important to the overall community. So, I want to thank you for what you do.

Please, engage us and partner with us because this work isn’t just about us, it’s about everybody. So, thank you very much for inviting us here today.

MARC MAURER, President of the National Federation of the Blind

Okay, thank you Janet and thank you Mr. Yuden. Mr. Yuden, I want to tell you two things.

One of them is that we understand that Senator Alexander wants to move voc rehab over into labor and we’re against it. So we’re going to try and talk the Senate out of it. Senator Alexander seems unwilling to listen, but we’ll probably will find some others in the Senate who perhaps a lot in the House who will listen. We haven’t given up on that. We don’t think it’s a good idea to take the program of vocational rehabilitation and put it in Labor. We think that, despite all the disadvantages and the errors over the years, it’s done good work in the Department of Education and that’s exacty where it ought to be.

The other thing may be somewhat of a challenge for you, but here it is. That we’re going to work on it is our determination and you might like it or you might have some suggestions. But we like it where it is and we’re going to keep it. Secondly, the group of people doing this common core testing have gotten a lot of federal money. We understand that the law says that they have to provide accessibility in their tests. We understand that their contract says that they have to provide accessibility in the tests. We haven’t noticed the Department of Education or anybody else in the federal government trying to get them to do it. We’re trying to get them to do it, and we’d like some help. So, you say engage you, let’s do it now.

YUDIN

Since this is a matter of litigation, it’s probably better that I not get into it. But I appreciate your advocacy and appreciate everything you’re doing and my remarks are etched in and applied to everything that you just said. It’s about access, it’s about educational opportunities.

It’s definitely challenging, the Senate bill or proposal to move us to Labor, we are moving forward as Janet talked about. There is a lot of important work that we’re doing at the Department of Education with the VR program. We ned to strengthen it, keep focused and keep our eyes on the prize that this is important work. We need to strengthen the partnerships that we’ve got, and move forward in the right direction. I appreciate everything that you guys are doing and appreciate your advocacy.

MAURER

I appreciate your willing to work with us and I look forward to more work together. We appreciate you frankness. We share this mechanism. In other words, we’ll be just as frank with you. Thank you for being with us.

Photo courtesy of the National Federation of the Blind.

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Corbb O'Connor
Corbb, a blind entrepreneur, coordinates the outreach and marketing efforts for the Institute on Blindness at Louisiana Tech University as an independent consultant.

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