Feb 9 -- The Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services, Department of Education, proposes a priority and definition under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, as amended (Rehabilitation Act), for Activities for Underserved Populations, Assistance Listing Number (ALN) 84.315C. The purpose of this priority is to make awards to minority entities and Indian Tribes to conduct research, training and technical assistance, and related activities to improve services under the Rehabilitation Act, especially services provided to underserved populations. For this priority, we propose to define “underserved populations” to mean “Black, Latino, and Indigenous and Native American persons, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, and other persons of color.” The Department may use the proposed priority and definition for competitions in fiscal year (FY) 2023 and later years. We must receive your comments on or before March 10, 2023.
The purpose of this proposed priority, together with the proposed definition, is to improve the delivery of Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) services to, and employment outcomes of, individuals with disabilities from underserved populations. The proposed priority would support training and technical assistance for a minimum of 15 State VR agencies (Combined, General, or Agencies for the Blind) over a five-year period so that the agencies are equipped to serve as role models for diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility in the workforce system by implementing policies, practices, and service delivery approaches designed to contribute to increasing competitive integrated employment outcomes for individuals with disabilities from underserved populations. Further, the proposed priority would require contributions to VR research and pedagogical practices that promote access to approaches that are racially, ethnically, culturally, and linguistically inclusive.
The proposed priority also incorporates findings, strategies, and recommendations from the Vocational Rehabilitation Technical Assistance Center for Targeted Communities (herein referred to as Targeted Communities), funded by the Department from FY 2016 through FY 2021. In the Final Report, Targeted Communities found that inequities and challenges experienced by underserved populations must be better understood by personnel working in State VR programs. Specifically, one of the findings suggested that increased understanding of the lived experience, daily stressors, and subsequent trauma faced by many, including individuals with disabilities from underserved populations, can help to modernize the VR program, build trust between individuals with disabilities from underserved populations and VR program personnel, and improve service delivery.
In support of the need for activities for individuals with disabilities from underserved populations, Congress found that “patterns of inequitable treatment of minorities have been documented in all major junctures of the vocational rehabilitation process. As compared to white Americans, a larger percentage of African-American applicants to the vocational rehabilitation system is denied acceptance. Of applicants accepted for service, a larger percentage of African-American cases is closed without being rehabilitated. Minorities are provided less training than their white counterparts. Consistently, less money is spent on minorities than on their white counterparts” (Section 21(a)(3) of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, as amended).
Data from the Rehabilitation Services Administration (RSA) 911 and the Bureau of Labor Statistics also support the need for activities that serve individuals with disabilities from underserved populations. The following data points demonstrate inequities in employment and competitive integrated employment outcomes based on race.
According to RSA-911 data, in Program Year (PY) 2021, 23.4 percent (188,807 of 808,384) of VR participants identified their race as Black/African American and 71.9 percent (581,069 of 808,384) identified their race as white. In the same year, the VR employment rate for Black Americans was 38.9 percent (24,944 of 64,081) while the VR employment rate for white Americans was 46.6 percent (91,070 of 195,528). Further, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (2021), the overall unemployment rate among persons with a disability was 15 percent for Black Americans and 9.3 percent for white Americans. The proposed priority addresses areas within VR that can be strengthened to improve opportunities for individuals with disabilities from underserved populations. Under the proposed priority, training and technical assistance would be provided to State VR agencies in areas that include identifying and addressing inequalities in service delivery, securing a diverse and well-prepared VR workforce, supporting cross-agency and cross-community partnerships at the State and local levels, and providing tools designed to ensure that VR program participants from underserved populations receive equitable access to resources and referrals needed to meet their full potential. These areas are aligned with the Secretary's Supplemental Priorities and Definitions for Discretionary Grant Programs, published in the Federal Register on December 10, 2021 (86 FR 70612) and Executive Order 13985 for Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities Through Federal Government, published in the Federal Register on January 25, 2021.
To address any inequities in the VR system and better enable individuals with disabilities from underserved populations to access the VR resources needed to secure competitive integrated employment and reach future goals, under the priority, a grantee would be required to work with a minimum of 15 State VR agencies to examine and analyze data between VR program participants from underserved populations and VR program participants who are not from underserved populations from eligibility determination to exit. The information gathered would inform training and technical assistance activities designed for each identified State agency. In developing training and technical assistance activities, applicants are encouraged to consider relevant strategies identified in the Targeted Communities project. For example, several Targeted Communities sites identified Community-Based Participatory Research (CBPR) as a strategy to gain an understanding of a community's unique issues and concerns. The methodology behind CBPR is predicated on deep and extensive community involvement in identifying and resolving issues and concerns. State VR agencies may benefit from training and technical assistance activities that use data and information gathered about employment outcomes for underserved populations to inform outreach, build trust in the communities they are serving, and increase competitaive integrated employment opportunities.
VR professionals play a critical role in ensuring equity in the workforce system as well as VR participant success. A diverse VR workforce benefits all individuals with disabilities, and counselor diversity in particular can improve competitive integrated employment outcomes for underserved populations. Within the comparative field of mental health, research indicates a significant correlation between race concordance and quality of care for underserved populations. Race concordance occurs when patients and providers have a shared racial or ethnic identity (Coates et al., 2022). In a 2021 study conducted by Georgetown University researchers, 47 parents of Black patients with mental health disabilities were surveyed to determine preferences regarding race concordance. According to the study, 83 percent of all survey participants preferred race concordance and believed it was important for providers to be of the same race or ethnicity as their patients. The study found that participants with a race concordance preference felt enhanced comfort and safety, relatability, and cultural understanding when patients and providers shared the same race or ethnicity. Participants also attributed race concordance to enhanced feelings of trustworthiness and mutual respect, which led to progress in mental health treatment. This study indicates that the commonality of race or ethnicity between provider and patient of underserved populations improves quality of care. VR consumers from underserved populations would benefit from a diverse pool of VR counselors. Through the proposed priority, we seek to strengthen the diversity of the VR workforce to enhance the delivery of VR services for individuals with disabilities from underserved populations.
State VR agencies are an essential resource, providing and connecting individuals with disabilities with resources and referrals they need to meet their full potential. It is vital that individuals with disabilities from underserved populations have equitable access to education, job training, and other community resources to achieve competitive integrated employment outcomes. These needs are best met through cross-agency coordination and partnerships between State VR agencies, community rehabilitation providers, educational institutions, and other service-oriented organizations in the community. The proposed priority would require grantees to establish or build on existing cross—agency partnerships, community and faith-based partnerships, and partnerships with local nonprofit organizations and business and philanthropic organizations to communicate the use and benefits of VR services and support pathways to education and employment. We believe such effective partnerships can strengthen community vitality and support long-term change. In the Targeted Communities project, six sites identified a community outreach and orientation strategy to increase referrals for VR services from community-based organizations and applications from individuals with disabilities. Strengthened community partnerships led to formalized agreements between partner agencies and, as a result, led to formalized agreements between VR and partner sites.
For these reasons, the Department proposes a priority that would expand promising and effective practices for serving individuals with disabilities from underserved populations and provide training and technical assistance that may be replicated and sustained across State VR agencies and incorporated into rehabilitation counseling programs. By creating a culture of shared responsibility, accountability, and inclusivity within State VR agencies, the proposed priority is designed to strengthen the delivery of services to individuals with disabilities from underserved populations and increase competitive integrated employment outcomes.
To ensure a common understanding of the proposed priority, we propose to define “underserved populations” to mean Black, Latino, and Indigenous (including Alaska Natives and Native Hawaiians) and Native American persons, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, and other persons of color. This definition focuses on the racial and ethnic characteristics of underserved populations because the program authority under which the funding is appropriated is based on Congressional findings regarding the inequitable treatment of individuals from minorities backgrounds in the VR process and instructs the Secretary to concentrate on improving the outcome of services provided under the Act to individuals from minority backgrounds.
We propose this definition to clarify that the purpose and intent of this activity under 29 U.S.C. 718(b)(2)(B) is to make awards “to minority entities and Indian Tribes to conduct research, training and technical assistance, and related activities to improve services under the Rehabilitation Act, especially services provided to individuals from minority backgrounds.”