Reauthorized Rehabilitation Act Increases Access To Assistive Technology

By Christopher Button

This article is reprinted from the A.T. Quarterly, Volume 4, Number 1 (1993)

Public Law 102-569, the Rehabilitation Act Amendments of 1992, became law on October 29, 1992. The 1992 amendments make several fundamental changes to the Rehabilitation Act Of 1973 and the way in which rehabilitation services will be provided to Americans with disabilities through the public rehabilitation program. Total funding for the programs under the Rehabilitation Act is over two billion dollars annually. The new law, built on the foundation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), recognizes competence and choice and affords individuals with disabilities access to the services and supports they need to live, work, and meaningfully participate in community life. This article will highlight some of the key changes in the reauthorized Act and discuss their likely impact on efforts to increase access to assistive technology devices and services nationwide.


Following the passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act in 1990, many individuals with disabilities, their families, and advocates, turned their focus to the Rehabilitation Act Of 1973 as a major vehicle for achieving full participation in the social and economic mainstream of our nation. As a major pathway into competitive employment for Americans with disabilities, the rehabilitation system should open the doors to participation in that mainstream. However, particularly for persons with severe and multiple disabilities, this system has been viewed more as a gatekeeper than a pathway. In fact, it has frequently provided additional roadblocks to independence to people with disabilities attempting to negotiate its bureaucracy.

Thus, citing great dissatisfaction with the existing system, the community sent a loud call to Congress to rewrite the Rehabilitation Act Of 1973 to: reflect values consistent with the 1990s; assure that its programs empower persons with disabilities with choice and assist them in finding and maintaining meaningful employment, and in promoting independence, productivity and full integration into the workforce and the community. For specific legal obligations, readers should consult the actual statuatory language.

ADA: Laying the Framework for Public Policy

Since enactment of the ADA in 1990, its principles and policies have become the standard by which public policy is viewed. The Rehabilitation Act Amendments of 1992 adds a new section which applies to the entire Act, laying out the findings, purpose and overall policy and intent of the Act. A similar section has been added specifically for the Title I state grant program [See Rehabilitation Act Amendments: Findings and Purposes].

These new provisions and their accompanying legislative history clearly tie the overall purpose of the Act generally and of the state grant program specifically, to achieving the goals and objectives of the ADA. The law now recognizes that disability is a "natural part of the human experience" and "in no way diminishes the right" of individuals to live independently, enjoy self-determination, make choices, contribute to society, pursue meaningful careers, and enjoy full inclusion and integration in the economic, political, social, cultural, and educational mainstream of American society.

These sections also clearly state that it is the policy of the United States of America that state rehabilitation programs shall be carried out in a manner consistent with the principles of presumed ability, integration and inclusion, full participation, meaningful and informed choice, and involvement of families and natural supports. More than just nice-sounding words, these statements of findings, purpose and policy create a value-based framework to focus all programs authorized through and funded under the Rehabilitation Act, and to drive value-based systemic change.

Presumption of Ability

As Congress entered this reauthorization, the existing rehabilitation system required evaluations of "rehabilitation potential" and determinations of "feasibility" for "employability." All too frequently such evaluations resulted in denial of eligibility to many individuals, particularly individuals with the most severe disabilities. Yet, with the explosion of advances in technology and with the advent of supports such as may be provided through supported employment, the notion of equating disability with inability to work is erroneous and outmoded.

The reauthorized Act begins with a presumption of ability that people can achieve employment and other rehabilitation goals regardless of the severity of disability, if appropriate services and supports are made available. Indeed, the concept of employability has been replaced with one of "employment outcome." While at first glance the definition for employment outcome is similar to the previous concept of employability, when combined with other amendments related to access, the message is dramatically different.

It shall be presumed that an individual can benefit in terms of an employment outcome from Vocational Rehabilitation Services...unless the designated state unit can demonstrate by clear and convincing evidence that such individual is incapable of benefiting from Vocational Rehabilitation Services in terms of an employment outcome. Section 123(c)(4)(A) of P.L. 102-569. [Emphases added]

The statutory requirement will force several critical changes. First, the notion of feasibility for employment is removed. Not only are people presumed to have the capacity and potential for employment, but the rehabilitation agency must be able to demonstrate that no employment outcome would be possible in order to determine that a person with a disability is ineligible. This essentially shifts the burden of proof for accessing the system from the individual with a disability to the rehabilitation system, with the clear assumption that people with disabilities can work. As explained in the Senate Report:

This provision implements the principle of "inclusion" enunciated in the ADA and the statement of policy governing this Act and Title I. The committee wishes to emphasize that the "clear and convincing standard" was included in the bill because it institutes the highest standard used in our civil system of law. The term "clear" means unequivocal. [Emphases added.] (Senate Report 102-357, p.37).

In other words, people are presumed to be able to work, unless the VR agency can unequivocally demonstrate otherwise. Thus the need becomes not one of determining "feasibility" or "employability"; not one of proving that you can work. Instead, with the assumption that employment is achievable, energies, funds and other efforts can be directed toward identifying and providing the services and supports that are desired and needed in order to make employment a reality. This should, in turn, encourage State VR agencies to provide individuals with disabilities with increased access to the wide variety of assistive technology devices and services many need to gain and retain a job.

Rehabilitation Technology

In the 1986 reauthorization of the Rehabilitation Act, considerable emphasis was placed on the provision of technology to assist individuals with disabilities in entering and maintaining employment. Indeed, the 1986 amendments provided an exemption from the comparable services and benefits requirement for what was at that time referred to as "rehabilitation engineering." Since the 1986 amendments, the Technology-Related Assistance for Individuals with Disabilities Act 0f 1988 (P.L. 100-407) established the terminology of assistive technology services and assistive technology devices to refer to the broad array of services and devices, and these terms have become widely used in the field. Recognizing that the use of multiple terms can be confusing, Congress sought to clarify that, for the Rehabilitation Act, the term "rehabilitation technology" will be used to encompass other terminology. Report language states:

The Committee recognizes that several terms are used in the field to connote activities related to technology design and utilization, including rehabilitation engineering, assistive technology devices, assistive technology services, and rehabilitation technology. The Committee decided to use the term "rehabilitation technology" to reflect all activities previously incorporated under the term "rehabilitation engineering" and clarifies that the term includes assistive technology devices and assistive technology services. (Senate Report 102-357, p.17).

Assistive Technology and the State VR Plan

In order to gain as much information as possible on the provision of rehabilitation technology, P.L. 102-569 adds four new state plan requirements in the area of the state VR plan. States will now be required to:

Assistive Technology and The IWRP

The technology needs of each VR client must be addressed in the Individualized Written Rehabilitation Program by including "a statement of the specific rehabilitation technology services to be provided to assist in the implementation of intermediate rehabilitation objectives and long-term rehabilitation goals" for the individual. Key report language states:

The Committee expects that, in terms of rehabilitation echnology, the IWRP should provide for regular and periodic assessments to ensure that a match exists between the supports, the technology, and the current and changing needs of the individual who will be using the technology, as well as other people involved in the provision of services who require the information (Senate Report 102-357, p.39).

Assistive Technology Exempt from Comparable Services and Benefits Requirements

Rehabilitation technology remains exempt from the comparable services and benefits requirement. This means that the rehabilitation system must provide rehabilitation technology services and devices to individuals who require them to achieve their rehabilitation goals.

Almost every other service under the scope of rehabilitation services in Section 103 of the Act is subject to the search for "similar benefits." This means that the rehabilitation system does not have to provide other services until every other possible funding source is exhausted _ a prospect that can be very lengthy and can significantly delay provision of services.

Amendments to Increase Choice

The revised Act includes numerous amendments designed to increase the choice and control of individuals with disabilities over rehabilitation services, both individually and systemically. The IWRP must be jointly developed, agreed upon, and signed by the individual with a disability and the counselor. The IWRP must be designed to achieve the employment objective of the individual, consistent with his or her unique strengths, priorities, abilities, and capabilities. It must include a statement, in the words of the individual, (or, if appropriate in the words of an authorized representative of the individual) describing how he or she was informed about and involved in choosing among alternative goals, objectives, services, entities providing services, and methods used to provide or procure such services. The IWRP must be provided in the native language or other mode of communication of the individual, or, if appropriate, of an authorized representative of the individual and must include information regarding related services and benefits provided pursuant to any federal, state or local program to enhance achieving rehabilitation goals. Finally, the individual must be provided a copy of the IWRP.

"Choice Regulations"

Section 105 of P.L. 102-569 amends Section 12 of the Act (Administration) to mandate that the Secretary promulgate regulations to enable individuals with disabilities to select rehabilitation services and service providers directly, consistent with the IWRP. The Secretary has 120 days, or approximately four months, to solicit public comment and develop these regulations.

This is one of the most important amendments from the 1992 reauthorization. It provides the mechanism to empower individuals with disabilities to secure their own services, as long as those services are in the IWRP. The Department of Education will be seeking public comment on the content of "choice regulations."

State Rehabilitation Advisory Council

The reauthorized Act provides a means for individuals with disabilities and advocates to influence the organization and delivery of rehabilitation services in each state. This is done by mandating the creation of a State Rehabilitation Advisory Council in every state. The reauthorized law requires the new State Rehabilitation Advisory Council be in place in order for the state to receive Title I funding in October, 1993.

With limited exceptions, council members will serve for not more than a three-year term, and will be appointed by the governor from nominations provided by individuals representing a broad range of disabilities and organizations representing such individuals. Membership must represent the following groups: Independent Living Centers; Parent Training Centers; community rehabilitation programs; business, industry and labor; disability advocacy groups; a Client Assistance Program representative; current or former applicants for, or recipients of, rehabilitation services and a Rehabilitation Counselor (ex-officio).

The majority of the members of this new council must be individuals with disabilities and must not be employed by the state rehabilitation agency. The council will have numerous responsibilities related to the organization and delivery of rehabilitation services in the state, including:

The intent of this important council is to empower individuals with disabilities in each state to become involved in setting the policy agenda for rehabilitation services in their state. States must move quickly to appoint council members, since the revised state plan, due by October, 1993, must contain their input.

Strategic Plan

The amendments rewrite Section 120 of the Act, previously authorized (but unfunded) as Innovation and Expansion Grants. This section of the Title I program now becomes a major vehicle for systems change. Effective October 1, 1993, states must have in place a strategic plan for expanding and improving rehabilitation services. Receipt of funds for the Title I program is dependent on having this plan in place. The plan is to be developed "to achieve the purpose and policy of this Title" (previously described). The strategic plan must include, among other things, a statement of the mission, philosophy, values, and principles of the vocational rehabilitation program in the state; specific goals and objectives for expanding and improving the system for providing rehabilitation services; and specific multifaceted and systemic approaches for accomplishing the objectives. Broad examples of activities are provided for the use of funds under Part C, Section 123. The plan will be developed for a three year period and updated annually. Prior to developing the plan, the state agency is required to hold public forums and meet with and receive recommendations from the State Rehabilitation Advisory Council and the Statewide Independent Living Council. Legislative history for this provision indicates:

The rationale for including these new strategic planning requirements is to ensure that each state develops a systematic, open, participatory process for identifying and articulating the future directions of vocational rehabilitation and supported employment services... (Senate Report 102-357, p.49).

Individuals with disabilities, together with state systems change projects and other advocates for assistive technology, clearly need to take a lead role in this critical process.

Section 508

The amendments update Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act dealing with electronic equipment accessibility. Originally added to the Act in 1986, existing law did not take into account technological changes that have occurred and that are likely to occur in the future. In addition, existing law focused on hardware, while the issues regarding electronic accessibility have shifted to software, interface systems and operating systems. The revised Section 508 now requires the General Services Administration of the U.S. Government to develop and establish guidelines for federal agencies for electronic and information technology accessibility designed to:

ensure, regardless of the type of medium, that individuals with disabilities can produce information and data, and have access to information and data, comparable to the information and data and access, respectively, of individuals who are not individuals with disabilities. Such guidelines shall be revised, as necessary, to reflect technological advances or changes (Sec.508(a)).

Key report language indicates that:

...the reference to electronic and information technology means any equipment, software, interface systems, operating systems, or interconnected system or subsystem of equipment used in the acquisition, storage, manipulation, management, movement, control, display, switching, interchange, transmission, or reception of data or information. Comparable access means that regardless of the type of interface between the user and the information processing resources being used, that individuals with disabilities can produce and have access to the same or equivalent information processing resources, with or without special peripherals, as individuals without disabilities (Senate Report 102-357, p.73).

The A.T. Quarterly was a newsletter developed by the RESNA TA Project under a contract with the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research (NIDRR), U.S. Department of Education (ED). The content, however, does not necessarily reflect the position or policy of NIDRR/ED and no official endorsement of the material should be inferred.

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