The month of June marks the 100th anniversary of the public vocational rehabilitation program. The vocational rehabilitation program is a state and federal partnership that provides services to enable individuals with disabilities to become or remain employed. Vocational rehabilitation services in New Mexico are provided by the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation and by the Commission for the Blind. Each year, over 7,000 New Mexicans with disabilities become employed as a result of receiving vocational rehabilitation services, enabling these individuals to obtain employment that is consistent with their “unique strengths, resources, priorities, concerns, abilities, capabilities, interests and informed choice.”
The first vocational rehabilitation laws were passed during World War I and designed to provide vocational rehabilitation services to wounded soldiers and sailors. The most significant of these laws was the Smith-Sears Veterans Rehabilitation Act, which was passed in 1918. These laws were very successful, and two years later Congress expanded the vocational rehabilitation program to include civilians. The result was the National Civilian Vocational Rehabilitation Act, which President Woodrow Wilson signed on June 2, 1920. In the ensuing 100 years, the vocational rehabilitation program has grown to become an inclusive program that has transformed the lives of millions of Americans with disabilities.
While the National Civilian Vocational Rehabilitation Act was a momentous step forward, it only included persons with physical disabilities. The law did not include persons with mental health impairments, and it did not include persons who were blind. The exclusion of persons who were blind is especially ironic because World War I saw large numbers of soldiers blinded by bursting shells as they peered over their trenches, or by mustard or chlorine gas. The attitude prevailing at the time was that persons who were blind were too disabled to be able to benefit from vocational rehabilitation services. It was not until World War II that Congress expanded the law to include individuals who were blind or had mental health impairments.
As we are seeing with other parts of our society, the vocational rehabilitation program has also struggled with the consequences of systemic and institutional racism. According to a 1938 study, African-Americans were less likely to be accepted for vocational rehabilitation services and less likely to be successfully employed. These results have been replicated in studies in the ’80s and ’90s, and in even more recent studies that have shown African-Americans and other minority groups were less likely to be accepted for services than persons from non-minority backgrounds. Because of this history, the vocational rehabilitation program conducts comprehensive assessments of the needs of “individuals with disabilities who are minorities and individuals with disabilities who have been unserved or underserved by the vocational rehabilitation program.” The goal is to make sure that the vocational rehabilitation program is an inclusive and empowering program for all persons, including people of color. Because of this, providing services that are inclusive to people of color is a high priority for the vocational rehabilitation program here in New Mexico.
When the National Civilian Vocational Rehabilitation Act was passed, the nation was still recovering from the ravages of the 1918 flu. Just as certainly as the state recovered from that flu, New Mexico will also recover from the coronavirus. The vocational rehabilitation program will be an essential partner in the recovery as we will be serving individuals with disabilities who have lost their jobs due to the pandemic. Some individuals who have recovered may also incur a disability due to COVID-19, and require vocational rehabilitation services to regain employment. Fortunately, the proactive efforts of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham have reduced the number of persons infected with coronavirus. As we move into our next hundred years, the vocational rehabilitation program will continue to grow and improve, and will empower all persons with disabilities to reach their full potential.