Free vocational rehabilitation services are available for individuals receiving Social Security Disability Income (SSDI) and may include disbursements for up to four years of college education.
Many SSDI recipients are either unaware of the government sponsored vocational rehabilitation program or my have misconceptions about it. It is natural to think one may lose their SSDI as a result of going to school or to assume the application process is quite overwhelming.
In reality, the vocational rehabilitation program itself will not impact your benefits nor should it red flag you for a premature SSDI review. If and when you obtain gainful employment, your benefits then would be reviewed. But even at this point the SSA offers what is known as a trial work period, which has several benefits and protections.
How Does Vocation Rehabilitation Work
The Social Security Act allows SSA to pay vocational rehabilitation providers for providing funds and services to SSDI beneficiaries as long as certain conditions are met. Foremost, according to the SSA, “vocational rehabilitation services must result in the person’s return to work for at least nine continuous months at a substantial earnings level.”
Starting the vocational rehabilitation process first involves making an appointment with a counselor (see the related links at the end of this article). You may then receive a little paperwork in the mail, usually it’s minimal, and an appointment.
Approval: As an SSDI recipient you automatically qualify for vocational rehabilitation and may not need to offer much additional information. However, the actual approval process for the initial paperwork may take 30-60 days generally.
Time frame: Keep this time frame in mind when applying for vocational rehabilitation. If you wish to be completely approved in time for the school year, try applying for vocational rehabilitation at least 90 days in advance.
Documents: The one document you will need initially for your Vocational Rehabilitation application is your SSDI award letter. A copy of which can be obtained from any local Social Security Administration office.
First Visit: On the initial visit, the vocational rehabilitation counselor will likely talk with you a bit about your health problems, limitations, work experience as well as your career plans. Depending on the counselor you may get some preliminary feedback on your interests.
Requirements: Additionally, you will learn the requirements of the vocational rehabilitation program which may be similar to the following: 1) vocational related testing and counseling spread out over days or weeks 2) temporary part-term attendance to a job site for a week or two, or some other test of stamina to show one can physically function in the school environment 3) possibly a health assessment or some form of neuropsychological testing to determine what learning or psychological deficits you have if any.
The vocational rehabilitation counselor will have you sign the necessary paperwork for release of medical records and so on, so you typically do not have to provide these documents yourself. If you have your SSDI award letter ready, she can promptly submit your vocational rehabilitation paperwork.
Approval: Finally, you wait for your approval letter and if approved you are scheduled for the vocational rehabilitation testing and counseling.
The Counselor, Friend or Foe?
Most complaints, just and not, concerning vocational rehabilitation seem to involve the counselor. Some have your best interests at heart but they also have job demands to meet.
It helps to understand a bit about the vocational rehabilitation counselor’s position, to enable her to become a better ally or to address problems, should they occur.
Vocational Rehabilitation Goals
Counselors have milestones to meet in closing active files, meaning individuals undergoing the vocational rehabilitation process. Once a person is in the workforce a certain amount of time, the vocational rehabilitation counselor’s job is done. The case file also changes status as you progress in vocational rehabilitation.
In a nutshell, the SSA provides for a trial work period of nine months whereas SSDI recipients can be gainfully employed and continue to receive benefits. Though an individual can go back on SSDI after that point, due to disability, passing this nine month trial is the preliminary employment goal for both SSA and vocational rehabilitation counselors.
Obviously, SSA wants a return on its investment in vocational rehabilitation, but due to the cost of SSDI and Medicare they tend to bend over backwards to get individuals back to work.
One problem that occurs is an overestimation or underestimation of one’s abilities by the local vocational rehabilitation office.
Another is encouraging people to pursue a career they may not really like. This is partly based on placement rates evaluated by the vocational rehabilitation office for various educational paths.
In some areas, placement rates are poor in computer programming, for example, and despite your interest and aptitude in the field, you may be discouraged from pursuing such a career path.
If this situation occurs and you can show you have the aptitude and/or experience for a particular field, lots of motivation and reasons you can succeed, ensure that you get this information across to the vocational rehabilitation counselor. In other words don’t always take no for an answer, when you have legitimate counterpoints.
–Typically vocational rehabilitation pays for college or training if you go full-time (12 credit hours or more).
—Compensation for schooling is generally based on community college rates.
–Typically online courses are not covered by SSA sponsored Vocational Rehabilitation.
Find Your Local Vocational Rehabilitation Office
Providers may be found through the SSA Web site or your state’s department of education. Additional vocational rehabilitation programs, such as those based on income, may exist in your area.