Establishment of the Massachusetts Rehabilitation Commission
The Massachusetts Rehabilitation Commission (MRC) was established on August 6, 1956, with the passage of Chapter 602 of the Acts of 1956, amending Chapter 6 of the Massachusetts General Laws, to operate the national Public Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) program. Prior to that, the Massachusetts VR program was operated as a division of the State Department of Education.
Massachusetts Rehabilitation Commission Vision and Mission
The Massachusetts Rehabilitation Commission (MRC) promotes equality, empowerment and independence of individuals with disabilities. These goals are achieved through enhancing and encouraging personal choice and the right to succeed or fail in the pursuit of independence and employment in the community.
History of the Federal – State MRC Vocational Rehabilitation Program
The national VR program originated in 1920 when thousands of civilians injured on the job found themselves with little or no access to retraining so they could return to work. In order to address those needs, Congress passed the Smith-Fess Act in 1920 and authorized funding for a federal VR program to be operated by the states. In 1935, Congress enacted the first permanent funding for the state-federal partnership to carry out the mission of VR in all states. In 1943, the Rehabilitation Act amendments expanded the VR program to include individuals with psychiatric disabilities and mental retardation, authorizing physical restoration services to enable persons with physical disabilities to go to work. When the Social Security Disability Insurance program was initiated by the Congress in the late 1950’s, each state was authorized to create a Disability Determination Service to determine eligibility for the SSDI program. In Massachusetts, the DDS was situated within the MRC in order to take advantage of its existing relationships with the medical profession, as well as the special skills of staff in making judgments about a claimant’s functional capacity to work. Additionally, applicants who had rehabilitation potential could be referred to the VR program for additional assistance in returning to work.
From the MRC’s inception, there has been a statutory advisory council (Statewide Advisory Council) whose purpose is to advise the Commissioner on matters related to the delivery of rehabilitation services. Over the years, the council has evolved from an advisory board comprised of the various members of nine state human service agencies to a rehabilitation council composed primarily of consumers and advocates. The changes in the role and composition of the Statewide Rehabilitation Council, reflecting the growth of a VR program encouraging active consumer participation in the rehabilitation process through the exercise of informed choice, were codified in the 1992 Rehabilitation Act amendments.
In the early 1970’s, the VR program began receiving federal monies which were used to augment services and establish new Independent Living Centers (ILC) throughout the Commonwealth. The MRC supported the development of the Boston Center for Independent Living, the first Independent Living Center in Massachusetts, and only the second ILC in the nation. Shortly thereafter, the MRC assisted in the creation of the Stavros ILC in Amherst and the ILC in Worcester.
In the late 70’s, when the Rehabilitation Act Amendments of 1978 funded ILCs with federal monies, the Centers in the northeast and southeast part of the state were added. Over the years since, ILCs were created in Berkshire County, the North Shore, the Cape, Fall River, MetroWest, and most recently, the Multicultural IL Center in Dorchester. Today, funding for the IL Centers consists of $1.3 million in federal Rehabilitation Act monies and $6.1 million in state appropriated monies. In 1974, Congress also created the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program for people with disabilities, including children. The disability determination function was again assigned to the MRC-DDS including Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and the agency began adjudicating more than 87,000 claims per year.
As the need for additional IL services continued to grow in the mid 1980’s, along with increasing constituency demands, the MRC set out to create a more comprehensive approach to serving the disability community. To begin with, in 1985, the Statewide Head Injury Program (SHIP) for persons who sustained an externally caused traumatic brain injury was funded by the Legislature. MRC continues to expend this services to people with brain injuries utilizing waiver services. MRC has also established waiver programs such as the Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) waiver program and the Acquired Brain Injury (ABI) and Moving Forward Plan (MFP) programs. The MRC Community Based Services department provides case management support to participants in the waivers. Case Management support helps people to live in the community with services. The MRC waivers include the Moving Forward Plan Community Living (MFP-CL) Waiver. This waiver program that assist people who have been in a nursing home or a long term care hospital for at least 90 days. In addition, Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) Waiver. The TBI waiver assists individuals who have a traumatic brain injury and who want to live in the community. The Home Care Assistance Program (HCAP) for people with disabilities was transferred from the Department of Social Services in 1986. Protective Services for vulnerable individuals with disabilities who are being abused by a caregiver followed in 1988. A Work Personal Care Assistance Program had also been initiated with state monies and later, in the early 90’s, was superseded by the state CommonHealth Program.
At just about the same time, the Boston DDS started expanding its efforts to assist new and growing disability populations. In 1983, the HIV Outreach Project began in order to help individuals receive the benefits for which they were eligible, particularly those who were hospitalized or homebound. Their now well-known Homeless Unit was founded in 1985, the first and only such initiative in the nation. The many years of outstanding work of the DDS Homeless staff was recognized nationally in 2004 with the Solutions Through Alternative Remedies (STAR) Award from the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty.
In 1984, the passage of the special education law, Chapter 688, brought an expanded role to the agency. This role was a natural fit since many students with disabilities would eventually need assistance with obtaining further education, seeking employment and living independently after high school. The MRC is now responsible for determining eligibility for Ch. 688 for all agency consumers of the Executive Office of Health and Human Services (EOHHS) and has been receiving transitional assigned cases from the EOHHS Bureau of Transitional Planning since 1992. In FY 2017, MRC received 1,594 Ch. 688 referrals for youth with disabilities.
When the Turning 22 Program was authorized, the planning and provision of IL services for youth with disabilities was assigned to the MRC. Supported Living services were invented in the mid 90’s by the MRC to divert people with disabilities from being institutionalized and for the purpose of helping consumers permanently leave institutions and nursing homes. Supported Living and Turning 22 funds, as well as Rolland and SHIP monies, are still being utilized toward this end.
In 1993, a Head Injury Treatment Services Trust Fund was established by the Massachusetts Legislature. In order to fund this initiative, at the time a $125 fine was levied against those convicted of Driving Under the Influence (DUI) and monies were collected and turned over to the MRC in 1997. In 2000, collection of a $25 Speeding Surcharge was added to the Trust Fund. By 2003, the Legislature increased the base speeding ticket surcharge to $50 and the DUI fine was increased to $250. By state fiscal year 2017, the Head Injury Trust Fund was bringing in approximately $7 million per year to help support the services needed by this expanding population.
In 1994, a state Housing Bond Bill established the MRC Adaptive Housing Loan Program. The passage of the Assistive Technology Act of 1998 provided additional federal dollars. The MRC’s expertise in assistive technology (AT) had continued to grow with what is now $1.3 million in state AT assessment and purchase monies for people with disabilities. In 2005, the Assistive Technology Loan Program, funded with both federal and state monies, was founded. Moreover, the MRC was designated by the Governor in 2006 to be the lead state agency under the federal Assistive Technology Act. As of FY 2016, the AT program is serving an average cumulative total of 477 consumers.
In 1998, the Rehabilitation Act was again amended and reauthorized as Title IV of the Workforce Investment Act (WIA).The inclusion of the reauthorization of the Rehabilitation Act in WIA served to further emphasize the fundamental purpose of the Rehabilitation Act to assist individuals with disabilities to go to work, underscoring the VR program as part of the nation’s workforce development system. In 2014, President Barack Obama signed Workforce Innovation and Opportunities Act (WIOA) into law on July 22, 2014. WIOA is the first legislative reform of the public workforce system in more than 15 years, which passed Congress by a wide bipartisan majority. WIOA supersedes the Workforce Investment Act of 1998 (WIA) and amends the Wagner-Peyser Act and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. As part of the newly enacted WIOA, the law requires that each state’s public VR system to play a much larger role in transition from school to adult life. WIOA strengthens and improves the nation’s public workforce system and increases economic opportunities for individuals with disabilities in the United States, especially youth and individuals with significant barriers to employment, to secure and advance in employment.
In accordance with the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 as amended by WIOA, MRC is mandated within WIOA to provide Pre-Employment Transitional Services (Pre-ETS) to youth with disabilities. MRC services begin at the high school level and extend through post–secondary activities with the ultimate outcome being employment. MRC is working closely with local school districts on transition and WIOA Pre–Employment Transition Services. MRC has a counselor assigned to every public high school in the Commonwealth and have developed strong working relationships with the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and workforce partners such as the Department of Career Services and Adult Education Services. MRC also provides supported employment services to youth through its offices.
The Massachusetts Rehabilitation Commission considers cooperation and collaboration with other agencies particularly human service agencies and our workforce partners to be essential and beneficial to most effectively serving people with disabilities and to providing the optimum opportunity for employment. Other agencies provide critical supports, necessary resources, and dedicated human service professionals all of which augment and enhance the Vocational Rehabilitation Program. For many years, the Massachusetts Rehabilitation Commission has worked closely and corporately with the staff of other agencies in serving mutual consumers. Collaboration often extends well beyond services to particular individuals.
Each of the more than 3,900 people who go to work every year pay state and federal taxes, depend less on government benefits and contribute to the economic and social vitality of their communities. Average hourly wage for employed consumers in FY 2017 is $14.11 with an average of 26 hours worked per week. The total estimated aggregate annual earnings for consumers employed for FY 2017 is $77.9 million. Based on Commonwealth Corporation Study on Return On Investment (ROI), $14 is returned to society based on increases in lifetime earnings for each $1 invested in the MRC Vocational Rehabilitation program. The Commonwealth Corporation Study on ROI also states that $5 is returned to the government for each $1 invested in the MRC Vocational Rehabilitation program.
In the early 2000’s, the MRC confronted housing and transportation issues that have been persistent barriers to employment and independence for people with disabilities. A Housing Registry had already been established and was now made available on the Internet. Grant money was secured to establish a new Travel Training program, followed shortly by the Transportation Options Project. In 2003, the Good News Garage partnership began to distribute donated and refurbished vehicles to consumers who were ready to work but could not otherwise overcome their transportation barriers. In 2016, MRC was awarded a demonstration grant by the Rehabilitation Service Administration (RSA) to assist youth in obtaining and maintaining employment, entitled Transition Pathway Services (TPS).
Together, the various programs of the MRC provide a comprehensive array of services for individuals with disabilities in the Commonwealth, assisting consumers achieve a secure future, including living independently in the community and being successful in the working world.