This year, vocational rehabilitation celebrated its 100th anniversary in the U.S.

The state and federally funded program was signed into law June 2, 1920, to assist people with disabilities in covering the costs of training and equipment necessary to go to work.

But a lack of state matching dollars has reduced the number of people with disabilities served by the program by over 15 percent in the past decade.

Each state is required to provide 21.3 cents for every dollar in federal assistance. Those that don’t lose some of their federal funding for the program.

According to federal reports, 2018 employment outcomes for state vocational rehabilitation programs had dropped by 6.4 percent, and the number of people served decreased by almost 4 percent.

In addition, the coronavirus pandemic has created unprecedented challenges for rehabilitation counselors who work for the state agencies.

The pandemic has also interrupted service delivery in New Mexico and slowed services.

On-the-job training, apprenticeships and supported employment have been placed on hold or canceled altogether by employers, according to Michael O’Brien, deputy director of the New Mexico Division of Vocational Rehabilitation.

It has been also been difficult to reach individuals in rural areas, including Native Americans with disabilities, because of limited internet services and the lack of resources to purchase services, computers and smartphones.

“It wasn’t until recently that all NMDVR staff had received enough laptops to work from home,” O’Brien said.

Last year, the agency lost $1.7 million in federal funding because of a lack of state matching dollars, he said. “That meant that individuals who needed services went unserved.”

Vocational rehabilitation counselor vacancies have increased caseloads and currently average 150 cases per counselor.

For years, the state Division of Vocational Rehabilitation has been under an “order of selection” in which many individuals who were eligible for services were placed on waiting lists.

Once a plan is agreed on by both the client and the counselor, the agency is responsible for the funding.

But people eligible to receive services often require more extensive training and technologies to achieve their career goals, and many services have been delayed because of COVID-19 health concerns in the workplace, O’Brien said.

Some clients may require years of education to complete their degrees, and the funds that have been approved need to remain available year to year for those people.

Right now an average plan cost is around $7,000 per person, he said.

Many occupations today require advanced degrees or specialized training that can be expensive.

If state funding was available to match all of the federal funding, this would allow more individuals with disabilities to go to work, but there would still be a waiting list, O’Brien said.

The New Mexico Legislature will face even greater pressure to limit funding for the program due concerns about a decline in revenue from the impact of COVID-19.

Individuals with disabilities must compete for jobs just like everyone else, but without transportation, education, work experience and support services, they will continue to have high unemployment rates and low economic status.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, an estimated 20 million adults between the ages of 18 and 64 live with a disability in the U.S.

A young person with a severe disability is more than twice as likely to live in poverty as the rest of the population. And an adult with a work disability will need almost 30 percent additional income to pay for disability-related expenses if they go to work, verses someone without a disability.

Additional expenses for someone with mobility impairment might include a $60,000 adaptive vehicle or $1,000 a month budget for personal care services.

Andy Winnegar has spent his career in rehabilitation and is based in Santa Fe as a training associate for the Southwest ADA Center. He can be reached at a@winnegar.com.

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