Massachusetts Rehabilitation Commission 2001 Annual Report

Vocational Rehabilitation Division


Vocational Rehabilitation Division Overview

Every success we have in the Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) Services Division of the Massachusetts Rehabilitation Commission helping people with disabilities to become employed and financially independent has a lineage dating back to the Smith-Fess Act (PL 66-236), passed by Congress in 1920. This Act was the federal government's first attempt to address employment barriers facing people with disabilities.

The VR Program has witnessed explosive growth over the years, expanding its services to assist people with the most severe disabilities, once believed to be "unemployable." With advances in public policy, social attitudes and assistive technology, as provided by the Rehabilitation Act and its subsequent amendments, employment barriers facing persons with disabilities are not as great as they once were, but many still remain. Nonetheless, in FY 2001, the MRC-VR program helped 5,000 people with disabilities get jobs, collectively earning approximately $76 million in their first year of employment. With an average wage of more than $10 an hour, last year, these satisfied employees paid $14 million in taxes to the Massachusetts and Federal Treasuries.

The VR Division receives approximately 75% of its funding from the federal government through the Rehabilitation Services Administration in the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitation Services. Recently, the VR-SES unit established IMPACT, a new program funded by the Social Security Administration in an attempt to overcome the disincentives built into receiving public benefits. This program will provide financial planning, technical assistance and outreach for persons with disabilities interested in working or returning to work. Other recent grants include Project Outreach which identifies existing service delivery systems, barriers, and resources for supports to individuals with severe disabilities who have been traditionally unserved or undeserved. Finally, the Transportation Options Grant (TOP), although administered by SES, is an interdivisional initiative reviewing existing services and resources in order to enable the Commonwealth to expand transportation options for consumers trying to obtain or maintain competitive employment.

Consumer Involvement is built into the provision of VR services at many levels, and in accordance with Section 105 (c) of the Rehabilitation Act, the VR Division has a very active statewide Rehabilitation Council (see pg. 20). This past year, approximately twenty gubernatorial appointees served on the Rehabilitation Council and provided oversight and guidance to staff working in all areas of the VR Division. Several area offices and regions in the VR Division also have active Advisory Councils consisting of persons with disabilities, their family members, employers, providers and others interested in helping to improve MRC-VR services.


Staff Stories

Sheryl Spera, Speaking Volumes

MRC Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) Counselor Sheryl Spera, like every counselor in the VR system, maintains a constantly changing caseload of more than 100 consumers preparing themselves to enter the workplace. Each consumer has unique job placement needs, which may include vocational interest and aptitude assessments, specialized training, and assistance developing effective resumes. The transition to autonomy through employment for people with disabilities can also include assistive technology aids and other supports such as sensitivity training for fellow employees, enabling the person with a disability to succeed on the job.

Spera has been with the agency for eight years and works in the Somerville VR office. She is one of more than a dozen vocational rehabilitation counselors throughout the state working specifically with consumers who are deaf or hard of hearing. A former MRC-VR consumer herself, Spera began working at the MRC soon after her graduation from Gallaudet University, where she earned a degree in psychology. She is now completing a Master's degree in Rehabilitation Counseling part-time while maintaining her caseload. Her work with one consumer in particular illustrates the challenges and successes that more than 250 VR Counselors are facing with more than 36,000 MRC-VR consumers.

Cambridge resident Betty Vendetti first applied for VR services in August of 1996. Vendetti, who had worked as a printer's assistant for 16 years, suddenly lost her job. While Vendetti had enjoyed many aspects of that job, the opportunity of looking for a new career provided occasion for Vendetti to consider other jobs and what might appeal to her. She turned to the MRC for help making her goals more specific and implementing a plan to achieve them.

Vendetti began attending weekly job club meetings in the MRC-VR Somerville office. "The job club was very helpful," recalls Vendetti. "I learned more about where to find good job listings and how to become more assertive with my potential employers about my skills and communication needs."

Spera referred Vendetti for career interest testing, counseling her to identify the most appealing characteristics of a job. "I love the outdoors and knew I wanted to be able to work more independently than I had been able to in the print shop," recalls Vendetti. Together, Vendetti and Spera discussed potential professions that fit the new profile while Vendetti began pursuing different opportunities in those fields.

Soon, Vendetti began working part-time as a crossing guard but her pay was not sufficient to cover her living expenses, even though she was now receiving SSDI benefits. "I moved back in with my parents but I couldn't increase my hours at work or accept a raise in salary without losing my benefits. I really needed to find a full-time job."

"One day I saw a traffic control officer riding around on a bicycle, and suddenly, I knew what I wanted to do. I went to Cambridge City Hall and filled out an application, and waited and waited for months. Every three months, I would reapply because I hadn't heard back from the city," recalls Vendetti. "But I knew I could do the job, so I turned to Sheryl for help and advocacy."

Spera then turned to her Area Director, James Sarno. Together, they worked firmly and politely to make sure Vendetti received due consideration for a position as a traffic control officer. Spera lobbied the traffic office directly, while Sarno worked his contacts in the city, making them aware of Vendetti's application. With coaching from Spera and Sarno, Vendetti began addressing specific concerns some city managers had about her ability to do the job.

"It doesn't often happen, but there were a few times I was almost ready to give up," says Spera. " But Betty was so sure, she kept on saying `I can do this job.' My job as a VR Counselor is to help consumers land a job in their chosen career, so I just marshal all the resources I can find, counsel patience and persistence, and keep all eyes on the goal." Like many people whose primary language is American Sign Language, Vendetti has difficulty with the syntax and grammar of written English. Spera found and enrolled Vendetti in a class specifically designed to help deaf and hearing impaired people improve their writing skills, skills that Vendetti had not used since graduating from high school years earlier. Nine months after completing the course, Vendetti landed the traffic control position.

An obstacle for the city while on the job was Vendetti's ability to communicate. Because traffic control officers sometimes deal with upset motorists, it seemed essential for Vendetti to be able to call for help, if needed. Spera and Sarno responded by using their knowledge of assistive technology, showing representatives an "interactive vibrating two-way pager." This unique pager has a full keyboard allowing access to e-mail with phone, pager and fax capability. This technology allowed her and the central office to type messages back and forth. Using a few basic abbreviations, such as "WRU" for "Where are you," the paging system not only ensured Vendetti's safety in the field, but an equally efficient means of communication when compared to traditional radio communication systems.

Ms. Vendetti has been successfully employed for two years and can be seen in uniform walking the streets of Cambridge, Mass...and Spera continues to help others fulfill their employment dreams.


Reaching Out To Southeast Asians in Lowell

Lowell is home to a burgeoning Southeast Asian community growing out of the war and unrest in Cambodia and Vietnam during the 1970's. People sought to escape the Cambodian "Killing Fields" of the Pol Pot regime (1975-1979) when an estimated 1-2 million people died. Of those who survived and came to the US, many showed symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder and depression, accompanied by substance abuse and domestic violence.

Today, the Lowell Cambodian community is the 2nd largest in the United States after Long Beach, CA with nearly 30,000 inhabitants and the highest birth rate of any ethnic group in Lowell. " Despite these impressive statistics, we were seeing very few Cambodians at our door in 1997," said Ed West, head of placement services for the Lowell VR office. "We decided to build our capacity to serve the Southeast Asian community by creating a specialty caseload and hiring a skilled Cambodian woman, Ratana Ty-Riebe, as a Vocational Rehabilitation Counselor. Though new to MRC, Ty-Riebe had a BA in Psychology and ties to many local service agencies. She collaborated with two other Cambodian VR counselors, Sokheang Hong and Thany Por of the Salem Area Office to explain MRC-VR services to Southeast Asians in both of their communities. Using Cambodian newspapers, Khmer local weekly television programs and print materials in Khmer, they attempted to increase participation in VR programs and decrease unemployment."

In 1998, West began working with the Cambodian Mutual Assistance Association on a grant-funded initiative through the Office of Refugee Resettlement. This grant utilized internships to aid development of marketable skills among young Cambodian immigrants. With the help of Lorraine Barra, N.E. District Director, Carolyn Langevin, Lowell Area Director, and the MRC Legal Department, they were able to surmount hurdles and create their own Cambodian Youth Mentoring Program. Internships were 6-9 months in duration and the interns were trained as placement specialists, employment development assistants, clerical support staff, computer lab monitors, and youth outreach workers. Since 1998, they have trained 12 interns, many of whom have gone on to careers in human services, and all of whom have jobs.

West soon began working with Ty-Riebe, supporting her effort building a caseload. "We conducted a joint survey with Steve Pellerin of American Training Career Initiatives (ATCI), the results of which confirmed numerous obstacles we all faced," explained West.

It was not enough to hire a Cambodian; other agencies had done so with limited increase in referrals.

The Cambodians who immigrated to Lowell not only shared common barriers with other groups such as language, culture, religion, and lack of marketable job skills, but they had experienced unspeakable atrocities and were afraid of government institutions. A lack of trust and fear of seeking our services loomed over us.

As in some other cultures, disability is viewed as a weakness, a demonic possession, and a family curse. Individuals are not to talk publicly about disability as it brings shame and dishonor to the family. Western treatment modalities are not a good fit with this community since individual responsibility is stressed. Twelve step models are in conflict with the philosophy of Buddhism. Male and female relationships have historically been viewed differently, overlooking domestic abuse.

Together they decided to hold a forum at a local Southeast Asian restaurant because of the need for direct care staff to share resources, identify service gaps, discuss problem cases, and support each other's work. Cambodian Community Services (CCS), a new organization, was the result of this meeting. CCS is coordinated by the MRC and ATCI and seeks organizations to present their programs and services. Meetings became more focused on referral, sharing, networking, and problem solving.

In July 2001, Tony Roun, a graduate of our Cambodian Youth Mentoring Program was brought on as a Community Outreach Worker to strengthen community ties and coordinate our efforts. Roun has been instrumental in providing access to the community's inner circle and youth population and is the spokesperson for the musical group SEASIA. His group performs at cultural events and was featured in the "Children of War" play with Yolanda King. They have even performed with Reebok Humanitarian Award winner Arn Chorn Pond, delivering a message of hope and healing for angry and disenfranchised youth.

"In an effort to further explore cultural awareness," recalls West, "I traveled to strategize with Buddhist monks at Long Beach Mental Health Clinic. At their own time and expense, Langevin, Roun, Ty- Riebe, Pond, and others have toured Cambodia to better understand the culture and traditions of the Cambodian people. We all believe that outreach is an ongoing process and that it must occur at all levels of the agency and in the community."


Diane McDonald, Job Coaching Breeds Success

Diane McDonald has been a Program Specialist with the Statewide Employment Services ( S E S ) Department in the VR Division of the Massachusetts Rehabilitation Commission for nineteen years. She works in the Community Based Employment Services ( C B E S ) program providing opportunities for individuals with a history of a major mental illness, who have been unable to find employment through traditional means. McDonald helps these individuals to utilize the services of a job coach to become stabilized in employment and successfully maintain their jobs. For many people with disabilities who participate in this program, this is the first time in their lives they have experienced a successful employment situation.

As a Program Specialist, McDonald must understand each consumer and all of their needs so she can contract with the right private agency at the right time to provide the specific service the individual must have to reach their goals. "A good example of our many success stories is Doug, a former participant in this program," recalls McDonald. " In my last interview with Doug, while conducting a Client Satisfaction Survey, he stated this program was a 'lifesaver' for him and feels strongly that these types of services must continue to be available for individuals with mental illness." Knowing Doug's history of anxiety and depression, which had previously interfered with several job placements, McDonald referred him to Options for Employment in Hyannis, a community based employment program funded by the SES Department. "Options" provides individual vocational assessments, counseling and other support services, such as job placement and job coaching, as individuals with mental illness transition to employment.

Doug reported he had developed a "fear of people," had very low self-esteem and was being treated for depression. After some unsuccessful job experiences, he developed significant difficulty interviewing for jobs because, as he stated "I get anxious during interviews." Things worsened for Doug, as the longer he went without work, the more depressed and anxious he became. When Doug started the Options Program, he had been unemployed for over four years and was in danger of losing his housing due to lack of income.

During the course of this program, he gained confidence and learned valuable job seeking interviewing skills. Doug benefited immeasurably from working with fellow job seeking skill group members who provided him support and shared their fears with him, thereby helping him to overcome his own feelings of self-doubt.

Doug began to work in the hospitality industry immediately after completing the program. McDonald continues to have Options staff meet with him to provide much needed support on a weekly basis. Without this support, Doug could not maintain his employment. He is now happy, feels productive, and no longer suffers the extreme anxiety that had become such a barrier to becoming employed.

"One of the biggest challenges we face as professionals in the field of vocational rehabilitation is the matching of services to the needs of each individual consumer we serve. The match between Doug and Options for Employment was perfect, resulting in Doug achieving his goal of successful employment," beams McDonald, smiling broadly.


Triumphant Teamwork

Working as a team out of the Milford Office of the MRC-VR Division,Tricia Gosselin , Placement Specialist, and Lois Thomas, VR Counselor, provide services to individuals with disabilities so they can live independently enough to go to work Lois and Tricia both hold Master degrees in Rehabilitation Counseling and have worked closely together since 1998, when Tricia supervised Lois as a counseling student intern in the Milford Office.

As an illustration of their work and the services provided by the MRC-VR Division they tell the story of Chad Shepardson, a young man injured in a dirt bike accident after landing on the ground, head first. Shepardson has a C-4 spinal cord injury and became quadriplegic in 1998, paralyzed from the neck down.

Throughout the rehabilitation process, Shepardson had many questions and fears common for people with newly-acquired spinal cord injuries, from basic logistics, such as returning to a home only accessible by stairs, to long-term concerns, such as what work he could do in the future with limited hand use. The Shepardsons, referred by the hospital, contacted the MRC in Milford. Gosselin and Thomas met Shepardson for the first time in March of 1999. He was home after a five-month hospital stay in Boston. As Thomas remembers, "our purpose was to interview Chad to determine if he could benefit from the services of the MRC VR Program; then we would have to determine the services he required in order for him to return to work. "He was found eligible," said Gosselin, "and we wanted to assess his work interests, transferable work skills and assistive technology needs. A five-day vocational work evaluation was scheduled with Easter Seals Massachusetts, to answer some of our questions. We then integrated the results of the evaluation into Chad's employment plan," she recalls.

As Shepardson moved toward independence, Gosselin moved on from her position as a VR Counselor to become the Milford VR Office Job Placement Specialist. Her new position would allow her to work full-time finding jobs for consumers on behalf of all the VR Counselors in the Milford Office. She would also spend her time building relationships with local employers, explaining MRC-VR services, providing Americans with Disabilities Act compliance assistance, disability awareness training and consulting on workplace accommodations, as well as matching the strengths and skills of consumers with appropriate employers/jobs in the community. With Gosselin's VR counselor job now available, Thomas was the obvious choice. She was hired to work full-time with a caseload of approximately 80-120 persons with disabilities, including Shepardson.

Together Gosselin and Thomas provided Shepardson with a wide array of the VR services he required to live as independently as possible and go to work. The partnership between these three worked exceedingly well.

Both Thomas and Gosselin scheduled home visits with Shepardson to build a solid relationship and stay connected with him until he became more mobile. Early on, the major focus of counseling and guidance sessions were identification of community supports and resources. An Individual Plan for Employment (IPE) was initiated delineating Shepardson's comprehensive plan towards employment. First and foremost, his goal was to be as independent as possible within his home and local community. All services to be provided by the MRC and other resources are listed on the IPE and include goals, timelines, and responsibilities.

In the beginning, the process of vocational assessment and exploration consisted of vocational interest testing, career counseling and computer skills assessments, to name a few. "A neuropsychological evaluation was then ordered to determine Shepardson's intellectual skills and abilities that in turn helped fill in his vocational profile. He needed personalized education regarding all of his benefits, such as SSI and healthcare, and soon understood the effect work would have upon receipt of these benefits, an extremely important issue to him" recalls Gosselin. Thomas helped prepare Shepardson for the next few steps, including a comprehensive driving evaluation, followed by van modification and driving lessons, which would allow Shepardson to drive himself to and from work. The MRC Assistive Technology Department then arranged for an Adaptive Equipment Evaluation through Easter Seals, providing equipment recommendations and purchases allowing Shepardson greater independence in performing work outside the home. Finally, Gosselin stepped in with job seeking skills training, eventually crafting a resume geared specifically to Shepardson's work and academic/job training history, including his strengths and abilities. The threesome was then ready to help sell Shepardson's talents to local employers. "I met up with a recruiter from Staples at a local job fair," remembered Gossellin, "and discussed Chad's work profile and agreed Staples currently had a need for Chad's skill set. I met with the Human Resource Department and managers to complete a job analysis and accessibility survey on-site at Staples. An interview was scheduled and included discussion of accommodations and environmental needs. A job offer soon followed. "Shepardson began to work part-time as a customer service technician in the Business to Business Division of Staples at their Corporate Headquarters in Framingham, MA. "His starting pay was $11.00 per hour," said Thomas. "We continued to work with the employer to ensure Shepardson had the adaptive equipment needed to successfully perform the job, which helped to ensure a smooth start for both client and employer." Gosselin and Thomas will remain available to both Shepardson and his employer to ensure a smooth transition. They will offer follow-up, guidance, and support services to both Staples and Shepardson if requested. "It's been a long, yet successful road for Chad. He has moved from thinking life would not have much to offer a young man in a wheelchair, to securing a good job that matches his skills and interests," recalls Gosselin. The future will now offer Shepardson a full life, one where he can be as independent as possible and have a satisfying career. "And that makes it all worth it," says Thomas, happily


Building Capacity Through Partnerships

A dozen years ago, when MRC staff began to see the extraordinary possibilities assistive technology (AT) offers for people with disabilities, it was clear we would need to work together with other organizations to maximize the opportunities available. The Massachusetts Rehabilitation Commission chose to work with Easter Seals as one of its first AT partners and the bond remains one of the strongest.

The MRC leadership understood from the beginning that adapted computer access could assure success on the job for people with severe disabilities. MRC supports Easter Seals' efforts to find and adapt technology, allowing people with all types of disabilities to demonstrate their abilities in ways everyone can understand.

Today, this specialized training and technology are taking people with disabilities into competitive jobs, allowing them to live safely at home because of environmental controls and connecting them to the rest of the world through the internet and e-mail.

The Massachusetts Legislature has led the way in the nation funding assistive technology for people with severe disabilities. The US Department of Education helped fund an Easter Seals Community Technology Center in Worcester and has just provided an additional grant for a Technology Center in Boston. MRC's capacity to link people with disabilities to the technology that expands their independence has been greatly enhanced by our partnership with Easter Seals.



Individuals who qualify for the Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) Program are persons with severe disabilities who own or are purchasing their vehicle, are within one year of gainful employment or are already currently employed, and need the vehicle to commute to work. All modifications are specific to the functional capacity and/or limitations of the individual consumer, are part of their VR plan for employment, and are necessary for their employment. Modifications may be non-structural including small modifications such as installing hand-controls, rooftop wheelchair carriers, etc. Structural modifications refer to services including, but not limited to, widening doors, reversing door hinges, raising a roof, lowering a floor, alterations to steering and braking systems and the installation of wheelchair lift and restraint systems. Frequently, a vendor's capacity and the consumer's ability to obtain a suitable vehicle makes vehicle modifications a time consuming process. Additionally, there is a waiting list for vehicle modification services, due to insufficient funding..



Over the years, staff at the Massachusetts Rehabilitation Commission VR Division have come to realize that all jobs are local. Networking with employers at the community level is a key ingredient in cultivating jobs, and quite simply, the more contacts a VR employee has in the business world, the more people with disabilities who will become employed. Towards this end, VR staff have developed both local and regional business advisory boards to assist them in their placement efforts.

One such group is the Greater Boston Employer Advisory Board (GBEAB), created in 1998 and consisting of volunteer representatives from thirty-four businesses in the Boston area. Some of these businesses are as diverse as Partner's Health Care, Raytheon Company, Harvard University and WBZ-TV/Boston Stock Exchange, just to name a few. These highly motivated professionals have demonstrated their commitment to assist the MRC to accomplish its mission of helping persons with disabilities go to work. Employers on the GBEAB, in partnership with the MRC, successfully model ways in which other employers, often reticent to hire people with disabilities, can learn to successfully employ, and if necessary, accommodate highly skilled persons who happen to have a disability.

Jonilee Rossi, a GBEAB member and President of MacPherson/CQ Personnel, explains that "Employer boards are vitally important to the community for several reasons; we offer proven business experience and insight into the hiring needs and trends of the local business community. We also provide public VR with the information it needs to successfully guide consumers into the workplace. I have tapped into a labor pool I didn't realize even existed. I have hired four people from MRC for clerical and sales positions since joining the GBEAB."

While the GBEAB meets six times a year, other Advisory Councils meet monthly or quarterly. GBEAB Board members often host a meeting at their company site and a Board member from the Massachusetts Legislature hosts the first meeting each year at the State House. The GBEAB motto is "Reach Higher and Hire," and their mission is "To help the MRC foster and promote mutually beneficial and sustainable business relationships between employers and qualified candidates with disabilities."

The MRC is grateful for the dedication of all of its Employer Advisory Board members across the Commonwealth. Our partnership with each one of you has greatly contributed to our success and we appreciate your efforts. Thank you very much!


Vocational Rehabilitation Facts and Figures


VR Consumers Served
Vocational Rehabilitation ProgramGoalTotal
Number of consumers who obtained employment4,8004,862
Extended Employment Program
Number of consumers who received services1,200 
Number of consumers who obtained employment7032
Community Based Programs
Number of consumers served240455
Number of consumers placed90208
Number of consumers who completed program70179
Number of consumers in extended services 157
Supported Employment Program  
Number of consumers served6589
Number of consumers placed5045
Number of consumers who completed program2929
Total Consumers placed in employment4,9695,205
Personal Care Assistance Program2021
Injured Worker Program Referrals200200


MRC VR Services Budget
MRC Vocational Rehabilitation Services199920002001Percent
State Participation6,354,4017,379,1728,202,67116.7%
Federal Funds35,731,00536,203,49036,080,76173.3%
Reimbursements from SSA3,783,9831,828,8244,927,09010.1%
Total MRC VR Revenues45,868,38945,411,48649,255,522 
General Administration4,639,1845,293,7726,194,00312.6%
Upgrade Projects900,000500,000300,0000.6%
Personnel Costs21,072,01722,405,52723,338,68447.4%
Purchase of Services19,258,18817,212,18719,422,83539.4%
Total Expenses45,869,38945,411,48649,255,522


MRC VR Services Consumer Population By Disabling Condition
Psychological Disabilities34.4%
Substance Abuse16.4%
Orthopedic Disabilities14.8%
Learning Disabilities8.1%
Mental Retardation5.5%
Deaf and Hard of Hearing7.5%
Neurological Disabilities2.8%
Traumatic Brain Injury2.6%
Other Disabilities8.1%


This information provided by the Massachusetts Rehabilitation Commission.