Officials from the Department of Human Services announced a slight reduction in aid available through its vocational rehabilitation program at a public hearing Thursday night. They also solicited public comment on areas of the program that the department may expand.
The vocational rehabilitation program is a federally funded operation overseen by the Division of Disabilities and Vocational Rehabilitation Services. It offers job training and counseling for individuals with mental, physical or learning disabilities so they can be more competitive in the marketplace and more likely to find employment.
A hallmark of the program is tuition assistance to help clients attend college and vocational schools. In previous years, the rehabilitation program has capped its aid so that individuals would not receive more than what an out-of-state student would pay in tuition and fees to attend the University of the Virgin Islands.
Citing a cut in funding from the federal government, Felicia Blyden, administrator of the Division of Disabilities and Vocational Rehabilitation Services, said the program would lower the cap to match the in-state cost of attending UVI.
For this coming school year, that amount $7,722.
Tuition aid will also no longer be available to all of the program’s clients. Rehabilitation program counselors will take into account their clients’ financial means to ensure the funds flow to those most in need of assistance.
Blyden stressed that just because the cap is tied to UVI’s tuition, clients do not have to attend this specific university. They are free to seek education outside of the territory, but the rehabilitation program may not cover the whole tuition if it is more expensive. Blyden said the program always offers choices to its clients, “but with choices comes responsibility.”
The meeting was attended by several parents of children who are currently enrolled in the program. None raised concerns about the lowered tuition cap, but rather focused their comments on expanding the program’s “supported employment” activities.
Blyden admitted that this was a weak point in the program.
Supported services go beyond the rehabilitation program’s main activities of job counseling and training. The program actually hires “job coaches” to go into the workplace with clients and train them over several days or weeks on how to do the tasks that are expected of them. Blyden said this can be especially helpful in cases where the client’s cognitive skills are deficient.
“The job coach will go in there and break down that job into manageable pieces so that they could do it, helping them maybe with cues to remember the sequence of things,” she said.
Blyden said the vocational rehabilitation program has a handful of job coaches it uses, but she would like to dramatically expand that pool. She cited the cost of such a service as a limiting factor, however.
“It can be very expensive,” she said.
Blyden said the program was expanding its relationship with the Department of Labor, however, to aid its clients in finding jobs. She said starting in August rehabilitation program counselors will be present at Labor’s “one stop” locations once a week, giving additional help to job seekers with disabilities.
She also said they were working with the Department of Education to expand its “transitional” program, which identifies children with disabilities who could benefit from the vocational rehabilitation program earlier in their education and begins counseling years before graduation.
“When that young person comes to us after they transition from the 12th grade, that should not our first contact with them,” she said.
To apply for assistance through the program, visit the offices of the Division of Disabilities and Vocational Rehabilitation Services at 3011 Estate Golden Rock on St. Croix or 1303 Hospital Ground on St. Thomas.