COVID has hurt employment for people with disabilities; how NY can help

Unemployed New Yorkers with disabilities can get intensive job training through a program called ACCES-VR. But a state comptroller’s audit criticized the speed and specificity of a program designed to help people who so often live in poverty.

The state comptroller said the supported employment program takes too long to develop programs that are too generic and lack good employment outcomes. for those who too often face chronic unemployment or underemployment.

But the New York State Department of Education, which oversees ACCES-VR, said the controller looked at the wrong metrics to judge.

State education officials also pointed out that the controller’s review period included the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, when unemployment soared for everyone, so it’s not not a good indicator of success. The controller’s audit covered the period from April 2017 to December 2020.

Across the country, people with disabilities struggle to find jobs that pay decent wages, with unemployment rates consistently more than double the average. People with disabilities often live on poverty wages if they find a job.

“Can this program be improved? Absolutely,” said Andrew J. Karhan, director of disability workforce development and New York State policy and legislative initiatives at the School of Industrial Relations. and work from Cornell University. “I would say that of any agency that touches a person with a disability.”

Cornell provides training for virtual reality advisors and works with some of the vendor agencies that support the program.

ACCES-VR stands for Guidance and Continuing Education Services for Adults-Vocational Rehabilitation. The federally mandated program grew out of the Workforce Innovation Opportunity Act and is funded at the federal and state level. The New York system is considered one of the best performing.

“New York is a shining example of making sure they invest advisers, agency staff in the community,” Karhan said. There is a complex system of support services for people with varying abilities and needs, he said. “It is a small population of people that virtual reality is intended to serve. »

Karhan called the timing of the comptroller’s report, which covers the start of the 2020 COVID shutdown, “unfortunate.”

“Every VR agency in the country has similar stats over this period,” he said.

People with disabilities may also have been hesitant to search for jobs in person, said Carlos Martinez, executive director of BRIDGES. “In some ways it’s understandable. A big factor is fear.”

BRIDGES is a non-profit organization that serves as the Independent Living Center in Rockland County and contracts with ACCES-VR to provide training and support.

State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli acknowledged the difficulties in general, and in particular during COVID, for people with disabilities seeking employment.

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“People with disabilities often face great obstacles in finding and keeping the jobs they want, and the pandemic has only made it harder,” DiNapoli said. But he said the state Department of Education needs to “monitor significant progress and delays in implementing individual plans to meet participants’ employment goals.”

DiNapoli welcomed Governor Kathy Hochul’s recent approval of a director of disabilities. He said he hopes the office “will make much-needed improvements to state services and support for people with disabilities.”

Karhan agreed that the new cabinet-level disability office could potentially streamline a complex system.

How virtual reality is helping this future veterinary technology

ACCES-VR training supports people with multiple disabilities, and sets ambitious career goals. Preparation may include pursuing technical training or a college degree. But, Martinez said, agencies like BRIDGES that partner with the program not only offer skill-building, but also resume writing advice and interview coaching and generally confidence-building.

Thomas McHale, 23, is pursuing training in veterinary technology through ACCES-VR.

Thomas McHale, 23, of Pleasantville, supports Sadie on the exam table with Professor of Veterinary Science Christina Urbanski, in her animal care class at Putnam/Northern Westchester BOCES in Yorktown on Thursday, April 7, 2022.

“I hope to work in a veterinary practice as a veterinary technician,” he said, describing career goals that match his interests. “We have two dogs, a cat, a hedgehog and a bearded dragon.”

McHale grew up in Pleasantville and recently moved into an apartment there. He hopes to soon bring Fifi, the family’s 17-year-old cat, to live with him.

McHale began planning his career as a vet tech with an ACCES-VR advisor in January 2020, while a student at Clear View School at Briarcliff Manor. He applied through the State Office for the Developmentally Disabled.

Then everything stopped in March because of COVID.

“The plan was completely different,” said her mother, Francesca Hagadus-McHale. The idea of ​​taking online prerequisite courses offered by Westchester Community College, she said, was not going to work.

When ACCES-VR got back on track after about six months, McHale was placed in supervised employment at Muscoot Farm, a dream for him. He worked there three half-days a week for about a year, with less and less supervision needed. McHale continues to volunteer at Muscoot Farm in Katonah and the Westchester SPCA at Briarcliff Manor.

Then McHale registered in person for a semester at the University of Delhi, with paid ACCES VR. It was difficult and lonely. But he passed his three courses.

Thomas McHale, 23, of Pleasantville, supports Sadie on the exam table with Professor of Veterinary Science Christina Urbanski, in her animal care class at Putnam/Northern Westchester BOCES in Yorktown on Thursday, April 7, 2022.

Now he is taking a veterinary assistant course at the WCC, which is paid for by his family. ACCES VR pays for a non-credit animal care course at Putnam Northern Westchester BOCES. On Thursday, he walked instructor Christina Urbanski’s 7-year-old pit bull, Sadie, who finds herself being used by students for bathing practice, taking vital signs and general care. Sadie, however, is rewarded with plenty of snacks and lots of attention.

The BOCES class ends in June, Hagadus-McHale said, “so now we’re looking at the next phase of things.”

McHale said in the fall that he will face a challenge for him, college-level math, which is an integral part of his career aspirations. “I have the hardest time with math,” he admitted.

Meanwhile, the McHales’ contact at ACCES VR has left and Thomas has yet to meet the new coordinator there.

Hagadus-McHale said COVID has slowed the plan, but believes Thomas McHale will achieve his goal and build a career as a vet tech. “As long as he’s supported, he can do it. And he will.”

As for the controller’s audit saying ACCES-VR took too long to hit key markers of individuals’ progress, Hagadus-McHale said it was hard to judge. But “it should take as long as it takes. That’s all.”

Thomas McHale, 23, of Pleasantville, walks Sadie during her animal care class at Putnam/Northern Westchester BOCES in Yorktown on Thursday, April 7, 2022.

What the audit found

While the Comptroller’s report noted that New York had seen improved employment rates for people with disabilities by 2019, but any gains were wiped out by the pandemic.

Between October 2020 and the end of September 2021, only 5,609 of the 44,624 ACCES-VR participants had obtained an internship, according to the controller’s report, a drop of 30% compared to the previous financial year.

The SED, in its response, said employment statistics alone are not a measure of success.

Martinez de BRIDGES accepted.

“They weren’t really measuring quality, they were addressing quantity,” Martinez said of the controller’s standards. “We’re trying to trigger empowerment.”

ACCESS-VR is a very specific program. Participants and counselors develop an Individual Employment Plan, or IPE. Often, other organizations that serve people with disabilities will work on these ECIs and provide specific training.

The comptroller’s audit indicated that ACCESS-VR often exceeded the 30-day threshold for determining whether a person would be accepted into the program. The process of developing an IPE is supposed to take 90 days, but auditors said it often takes longer. Annual reviews mandated by the federal government – ​​the minimum requirement – ​​were also sometimes late, according to the audit.

The Department of Education was ordered in a 2018 federal audit to speed up the deadline. Education officials said the program addresses those concerns and the federal government considers the issue resolved.

The comptroller’s office also said ACCES-VR counselors too often use “vague or boilerplate” language in ECIs. These plans are meant to be detailed and accurate.

The state Department of Education maintained that the comptroller’s office reviewed some records, but did not visit and inspect complete records. Karhan, the labor expert at Cornell, agreed.

“Most of the quality happens on the pitch,” he said. “I agree with VR saying you miss the picture. Go to the agencies and look at the records.”

The comptroller’s office responded that the program still fell short. “There is always a way to improve.”

The stakes, according to listeners, are high.

“Inadequate supervision, incomplete EPIs, and delays in an already complex process can deter participants from finding employment,” the monitor’s report states, “which can further disrupt participants’ independent living and exit goals. of poverty”.

Nancy Cutler writes at People & Policy. Click here for his latest stories. Follow her on Twitter at @nancyrockland.

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