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Sweeping New Bill Seeks to Help Students With Disabilities

The bipartisan overhaul of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act trumpeted in Washington, D.C. includes provisions aimed to help students with disabilities find well-paying work, but some say the deal doesn’t go far enough.

Sens. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), along with Reps. John Kline (R-Minn.), Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.) and George Miller (D-Calif.), announced a sweeping bipartisan, bicameral deal that was long in the making. The bill aims to modernize the 1998 law, which oversees $3 billion in job training programs, by eliminating 15 programs and creating universal performance metrics. Many expect it to advance.

For students with special needs in particular, the bill aims to make states more responsible for making sure those students graduate into jobs that allow them to make minimum wage and work alongside adults who have no disabilities. This move extends the often-controversial concept of inclusion in public schools into the workforce. Under the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, another Harkin initiative, students with special needs must be given a “free and appropriate public education” in the “least restrictive environment.”

But unlike IDEA, which covers students with special needs until they turn 21, workforce training programs for individuals with disabilities aren’t entitlements, meaning that there are far more students who are eligible than receive the service, known as Vocational Rehabilitation.

The changes, Harkin said, “will raise prospects and expectations for Americans with disabilities, many of whom, under current law, are shunted to segregated, sub-minimum wage settings without ever receiving the opportunities and skills to succeed in competitive integrated employment.”

To that end, the law requires Vocational Rehabilitation programs to develop “individual employment plans.” It also mandates that states use at least 15 percent of VR dollars for helping students or young people while they’re still transitioning out of school.

“The big priority for Harkin was things like writing a resume and job training that would ultimately … have [students] be able to transition into school and higher education or competitive integrative employment,” said Andrew Imparato, executive director of the Association of University Center on Disabilities, who has advised Harkin on disability issues in the past.

The update, Imparato said, makes the law more prescriptive than any previous version.

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