Vocational Rehabilitation for Social Security Disability Claimants: A good idea?

Vocational rehabilitation is essentially the process of preparing for, applying for, and securing employment.  The goal of vocational rehabilitation is to enable persons with functional, psychological, developmental, cognitive, and emotional disabilities or impairments or health disabilities to overcome barriers to accessing, maintaining, or returning to employment or other useful occupation.

The  Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (and as amended in 1974)  extended and revised the authorization of grants to States for vocational rehabilitation services, with special emphasis on services to those with the most severe disabilities.  In Texas the Department of Assistive & Rehabilitative Services provides these vocational rehabilitation services to Texas residents with disabilities. More information can be found at http://www.dars.state.tx.us.

The Social Security Administration has a policy of referring social security disability applicants to state vocational rehabilitation services if they meet a specific criteria.  If the disability applicant meets the “screen-in” criteria, they are to be referred to the appropriate state agency for rehabilitation services.   In practice, social security does a very poor job of screening disability applicants for vocational rehabilitation services.

Qualification for social security disability requires an inability to do any work of any kind.  So from the claimant’s perspective there is little reason to access vocational rehabilitation services.  But from social security’s perspective of assessing whether the claimant is or is not disabled, a referral to vocational rehabilitation could make sense.  However, social security need not deny a claim (finding the claimant capable of work) prior to the “screen-in, screen-out” decision for a vocational rehab referral.   Social security disability claimants need not have applied or been approved for social security disability benefits in order to seek the assistance of a state vocational rehabilitation office.  But once a claimant starts the social security disability process, or has been approved for social security disability, does it ever make sense to seek vocational rehabilitation services?  The surprising answer often times is “Yes”, but the decision and it consequences are very different when applying for disability and when actually receiving disability benefits.  Let’s consider them both.

Vocational Rehabilitation Services During the Social Security Disability Application and Appeal Process 

As noted above, applying for social security disability – with its requirement of total inability to work – and seeking vocational rehabilitation services seems contradictory.  And unfortunately in the state of  Texas at least Department of Assitive and Rehabilitative Services personnel have often pushed social security disability applicants away.  Perhaps this is based upon a belief that social security disability applicants are not open to vocational rehabilitation given that they are seeking total disability.  In my experience as a social security disability lawyer in Texas for over 25 years, it seems state vocational personnel often “invite” the social security disability applicant into talking about what they think they can do or why they are seeking social security disability.  Based upon the answers typically provided, vocational rehab personnel usually deny services, saying there is “nothing they can do” because the claimant alleges total disability.

Despite these significant roadblocks, it is usually wise for social security disability applicants to seek vocational rehabilitative services at their state agency.  There is not charge for the services.  As part of the screening process, the state vocational  rehabilitation service will secure a psychological consultative examination (focused on whether the individual is capable of “rehabilitation” and vocational training.  This examination can be very helpful is proving qualification for social security disability.

In addition, Administrative Law Judges (ALJ) who will decide the disability claim at the hearing stage are usually more favorably inclined to those seeking vocational rehabilitation services.  This action shows the ALJ that the claimant has initiative and is not just wanting to “get on the dole”.  And if the vocational rehabilitation results in securing better employment, the claimant is much better off than being on social security disability.

Despite these advantages to pursing both social security disability and vocational rehabilitation services at the same time, claimants are reluctant to approach the state vocational rehabilitation service.  They often feel vocational rehabilitation will hurt their disability case, and will make them look inconsistent.  I advice my clients to approach DARS in Texas with a careful “script” to avoid being sucked in to statements DARS will use to deny them vocational rehabilitation, along these lines:

“My attorney has told me that I have the right to vocational rehabilitation services.  I cannot do my old job, and I really cannot see other work that I can do, but I want to explore whether I could be trained to do a new job”

Vocational Rehabilitation Services After Winning Social Security Disability Benefits

Social Security Disability recipients can access vocational rehabilitation services via the “Ticket to Work” program.  Claimants cannot be taken off disability while participating in the Ticket to Work program.  If you are a Texas resident, the state of Texas provides vocational rehabilitation services.


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