Vocational rehabilitation is a program intended to help disabled people secure, regain, or retain employment. Typically, you must require these services to be eligible for them, and your disability must pose some barrier in seeking, gaining, maintaining, or even advancing in employment. Each state has its own vocational rehabilitation agency. States may have different language, processes, and requirements for determining eligibility. States receives grants from the federal government to operate these programs.
Depending upon eligibility, vocational rehabilitation services may be available to individuals in the legal profession or who are interested in pursuing a legal career. For example, if you are currently experiencing issues maintaining or seeking employment due to your disability and wish to go to law school, vocational rehabilitation services may be helpful. Vocational rehabilitation services may be able to assist with paying for educational expenses, including tuition, equipment, and books. It should be noted, however, that vocational rehabilitation is not a financial aid program. Typically, vocational rehabilitation programs will need to determine that you can achieve this work goal and that participating in the educational program is necessary to pursue a specific line of work. Vocational rehabilitation services may also be beneficial for current attorneys experiencing employment barriers. Generally, they may be able to provide counseling, training, assistive technology, placement help, and other services.
Ben Uchytil, a first-year law student at University of the Pacific in California, shared his experiences with the California Department of Rehabilitation (DOR) with the National Disabled Law Students Association (NDLSA). Uchytil experienced a head injury, after which he successfully applied for Social Security Disability Insurance. Uchytil then went to community college and retook algebra. He paid for these courses himself, did extremely well, and amassed documentation demonstrating he could succeed. DOR then paid for a Master’s in mathematics. When he experienced sepsis, he could no longer complete graduate level math. Then, Uchytil decided on law. He noted that DOR would not allow him to pursue clinical psychology because it was hard to find work—they pair capacities with the current job market. DOR is paying for Uchytil’s law-school tuition, books, and incidentals (including his laptop, notebooks, a rolling backpack, a computer bag, and a needed printer).
For example, Uchytil had been having difficulty reading online exams with a 15-inch laptop; he was able to put in work order for a 27-inch screen to plug in to his laptop to write essays, as well as an external plug-in mouse. When Uchytil was having a hard time staying focused in classes, DRO allowed Uchytil to purchase an Echo Smartpen. Finally, Uchytil stated that he began working in a new office this year and will likely need better clothing—he received a purchase order for a more appropriate suit. Uchutil explained that DOR will not pay for one’s car, internet, or rent, but if one does not have a car, DOR will pay for a monthly bus pass. DOR will provide Uchytil with services and assistance for the rest of his life—even as a lawyer.
Hattie Frana, a member of the Class of 2022 at the University of Iowa College of Law, learned about vocational rehabilitation services in college. She had to prove her disability through a neuropsychological evaluation. She said that the process was not difficult once she received her evaluation, although finding a provider was challenging. Her disability would have to impact future employment to receive the services. She receives $6,000 per semester toward tuition and other education expenses. She is also receiving $1,500 to cover part of her summer course tuition. She must provide her transcript and next semester’s registration to receive her funding toward tuition. Some examples of other expenses that were covered included a new computer and professional clothing necessary for internships.
Colin FitzMaurice, a 2019 alumnus of the University of Idaho, received vocational rehabilitation services from Montana. He learned about the program in or around 2014. His entire trajectory was for law school. The program denied a request to study counseling. However, he also said the program gave him the motivation to go to law school. FitzMaurice explained that the program is broad in its number of qualifying conditions. He said that all he had to do was submit a psychological evaluation for services. He added that many states have waiting lists. He said that in Montana, there had been a two-year waiting list. He suggested applying right away if you would like to receive services. FitzMaurice said that the program paid for a Kaplan LSAT course. The program also paid part of his tuition. The program would only pay up to the cost to go to school in Montana. However, having been accepted in Idaho, FitzMaurice had to pay the difference in cost. He also received a book stipend. He said the program would have also paid for costs like a new suit or a new psychological evaluation for the bar examination to request accommodations. He said many times, the program will pay for these types of costs, but you must request them in advance to ensure they are in compliance with your plan. FitzMaurice said that there was also job training and placement assistance available, but he did not really rely on the program for much of that.
Uchytil expressed that an individual he knew had their request to pursue further education denied. That individual, he explained, did not have a record of success to show they could achieve their goals. He reiterated how helpful his community college experience was for laying that groundwork. He also explained that what determinations may be highly dependent on counselor you receive and their experience level. Uchityl explained he received a seasoned counselor who had assisted many people over the course of several decades.
In comparison, FitzMaurice did not have to prove his capability to succeed in law school. Originally, his counselor did ask if it was something he could do, but having an advocate was what really helped. He explained that he had an advocate from the state’s disability rights office who had been assisting him. Uchityl also mentioned these offices in each state could help if you are denied, or struggle to obtain, services. These offices also exist in some territories and the District of Columbia. The Office of Clients’ Rights Advocacy in California and Office of Disability Rights in the District of Columbia are examples of such offices. FitzMaurice noted that appeals for denials are possible. He recommended that folks push for what they want—he said vocational rehabilitation offices are not used to individuals interested in going to law school.
Vocational rehabilitation can be an important resource for lawyers, law students, and prospective law students who may need assistance finding, maintaining, or regaining employment due to their disability. It is a largely untapped resource for disabled individuals in the legal profession. Many may not be aware of these services, the types of assistance available to them, or that they may be eligible for them. However, it is extremely valuable and can potentially help even more disabled individuals pursue careers in the legal profession.
For more information about applying for these services, the Job Accommodation Network has a list of contact and website information for all state and territory agencies. If you have any questions, please feel free to contact NDLSA at firstname.lastname@example.org.