How Individual and Environmental Factors affect Employment Outcomes (of Vocational Rehabilitation Clients)

There is growing interest among practitioners and policymakers to improve delivery of vocational rehabilitation (VR) services to enhance employment outcomes of people with disabilities. However, agencies face a number of challenges when delivering these services. First is the heterogeneity (or uniqueness) of recipients as to the nature of their impairments, their education and skills, age, and other personal characteristics. Second, clients’ needs change as their impairments evolve, as they learn to adapt to their impairments, as their support networks develop, and as they enter or exit other programs. Third, clients’ needs and how agencies may address them are affected by the local economic environment. Understanding these factors and how they relate to outcomes can help administrators and practitioners make decisions about how to best allocate VR services and resources to improve employment outcomes for people with disabilities.

Towards this end, a 2017 special issue of the Journal of Vocational Rehabilitation provides new evidence on the individual and environmental factors associated with program participation and employment outcomes (available for a fee here). In the issue’s introductory article (free), editors Purvi Sevak, David C. Stapleton and John O’Neill summarize six of the issue’s articles. These articles draw on findings from a literature review and analyses of administrative and survey data to examine variation in participation and outcomes across subgroups of VR clients in the US. Lessons learned in these articles would likely apply here in Canada as well. Highlights of each article, including delivery implications, follow:

  • What Have We Learned Using Merged Administrative Data from the Social Security Administration (SSA) and the Rehabilitation Services Administration (RSA)?” The authors, David Stapleton and Frank Martin, find from their review of the literature that studies based on analysis of the administrative data successfully document the characteristics and program and employment outcomes of VR clients, but provide limited information about the impact of the services on those outcomes. The studies show that the characteristics and outcomes of VR customers vary widely across agencies, but they provide little evidence on the causes of such variation. Moreover, while the studies do show that VR clients tend to increase their employment and modestly reduce their SSA benefits dependency, the studies do not produce robust measures of the impact of VR services on employment and program outcomes. The reason is that VR participants have self-selected into the program and so it is not feasible to infer what the outcomes would have been in the absence of the services. Still, the authors see much merit in the matched administrative data – for providing contextual information on the diverse pathways to employment and program outcomes; for evaluating impacts of significant policy changes; and for supporting evaluation of a demonstration project, such as Career Pathways, which is using random assignment to assess the impacts of VR service delivery innovations on the acquisition of skills, credentials and a job.
  • “Transitions and Vocational Rehabilitation Success: Tracking Outcomes for Different Types of Youth.” The authors, Todd Honeycutt, Frank Martin, and David Wittenburg, use matched RSA-911 administrative data to observe, particularly, the outcomes of transition-age youth VR applicants and participants. They find high school dropouts have the lowest odds of receiving services and employment closures (at the end of those services). They also show that those who were still in high school at application have lower employment rates at program completion than those who were working or in post-secondary education when they applied. This possibly has implications for targeting and loss of assistance for high-school drop-outs or current students.
  • “Impairment, Demographics and Competitive Employment in Vocational Rehabilitation.” The authors, John O’Neill, Walter Kaczetow, Joseph Pfaller, and Jay Verkuilen, again use RSA data, this time to examine variation in competitive employment outcomes by impairment subgroup. Competitive employment refers to work within an integrated workplace setting. They find a strong positive relationship between educational attainment and competitive employment and a strong negative relationship between age and competitive employment. They also find that these relationships vary greatly by impairment type. These differences underscore the importance of customized delivery of services to address the varied needs of different impairment groups throughout the life course.
  • “Using Administrative Data to Explore the Employment and Benefit Receipt Outcomes of Vocational Rehabilitation Applicants Years After Program Exit.” The authors, David R. Mann, Todd Honeycutt, Michelle S. Bailey, and John O’Neill, use matched RSA-911 and SSA administrative data to examine the long-term employment and program outcomes for VR applicants. They show that a higher local unemployment rate leads to poorer outcomes, but that receipt of VR services mitigates that relationship. They also show that VR participants who are employed at the end of their services have higher employment outcomes seven years later than those who did not receive services. This finding affords an opportunity to target follow-up assistance to VR clients as they leave the program.
  • “Personal Characteristics of Vocational Rehabilitation Applicants: Findings from the Survey of Disability and Employment (SDE).” The authors, Angela Eckstein, Purvi Sevak, and Debra Wright, first point out that an important objective of the new SDE was to better understand the barriers and facilitators to employment that VR applicants face—concepts that the administrative data do not capture. The authors find from the survey data that most VR applicants have a strong interest in working but report numerous health and social barriers to employment. Additionally, about one-half said that employers would not give them a chance and one-quarter stated that their friends or family discouraged work activity. In contrast, a substantial number of respondents reported that they received various accommodations, including help with physical demands, personal assistance, and modified work duties.
  • “Variations in Social Capital Among Vocational Rehabilitation Applicants.” The authors, Debra L. Brucker, Amanda Botticello, John O’Neill, and Ann Kutlik, examine perceived “social capital” as it relates to employment outcomes of VR applicants. They defined social capital as access to: friends or family who could provide help with finding a job; loans to pay an urgent bill; transportation to get to work urgently; and help with a severe personal crisis preventing finding or keeping a job. The authors find high levels of social capital among VR applicants who are currently working, have less severe disabilities, or have better perceived health. Given that the authors also find strong links between social capital and outcomes, practitioners should consider social capital measures (or its correlates) when conducting needs assessments of their clients.

This article should be of value to practitioners, employers and designers of vocational rehabilitation programs who are interested in improving program and employment outcomes for this group of clientele.

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