Unemployed New Yorkers with disabilities can receive intensive vocational training through a program called ACCES-VR. But a state auditor’s audit found fault with the speed and accuracy of a program designed to help people who so often live in poverty.
The State Comptroller said the Supported Employment Program was taking too long to develop programs that were too general and didn’t produce good work results for those who all too often face chronic unemployment or underemployment.
But the New York State Department of Education, which oversees ACCES-VR, said the auditor looked at the wrong measures to judge.
State education officials also pointed out that the auditor’s review period covered the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, when unemployment spiked for everyone, which isn’t a fair measure of success. The Comptroller’s review covered the period from April 2017 to December 2020.
People with disabilities across the country struggle to find employment that pays a living wage, with unemployment rates consistently more than double the average. People with disabilities often live on poverty wages when they find employment.
“Can this program be improved? Absolutely,” said Andrew J. Karhan, director of workforce development for the disabled and New York State Policy and Legislative Initiatives at Cornell University’s Industrial and Labor Relations School. “I would say that about any agency that touches people with disabilities.”
Cornell offers training for VR consultants and works with some vendor agencies that support the program.
ACCES-VR stands for Adult Career and Continuing Education Services-Vocational Rehabilitation. The federally mandated program grew out of the Workforce Innovation Opportunity Act and is funded at the federal and state levels. The New York system is considered one of the most successful.
“New York is a shining example of them investing consultants and agency staff in the community,” said Karhan. There is a complex system of support services for people with different abilities and needs, he said. “It’s a small population of people that VR is designed to serve.”
Karhan called the timing of the auditor’s report, which covers the start of the 2020 COVID shutdown, “unfortunate”.
“Every VR agency in the country has similar stats during this period,” he said.
People with disabilities may also have been reluctant to pursue personal pursuits, said Carlos Martinez, executive director of BRIDGES. “In a way, that’s understandable. A big factor is fear.”
BRIDGES is a non-profit organization that serves as Rockland County’s independent residential center and contracts with ACCES-VR to provide training and support.
State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli acknowledged the difficulties in general and particularly during COVID for people with disabilities seeking employment.
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“People with disabilities often face major obstacles when it comes to finding and keeping the jobs they want, and the pandemic has only made things more difficult,” DiNapoli said. But he said the state Department of Education must “monitor progress and significant delays in the implementation of individual plans to meet participants’ employment goals.”
DiNapoli hailed Gov. Kathy Hochul’s recent appointment of a chief disability officer. He said he hopes the office “will lead to much-needed improvements in government services and support for people with disabilities.”
Karhan agreed that the new Cabinet-level Disability Office could potentially streamline a complex system.
How VR is helping this future veterinary tech
The ACCES VR training supports people with multiple disabilities and sets ambitious career goals. Preparation can include technical training or university studies. But, Martinez said, the agencies like BRIDGES that work with the program not only offer skills building, but also resume writing tips, interview coaching and general confidence boosting.
Thomas McHale, 23, is studying veterinary technology through ACCES-VR.
“Hopefully I’ll work in a veterinary practice as a veterinary technician,” he said, describing career goals that align with his interests. “We have two dogs, a cat, a hedgehog and a bearded dragon.”
McHale grew up in Pleasantville and recently moved into an apartment there. He hopes to adopt Fifi, the family’s 17-year-old cat, soon.
McHale began planning his path as a veterinary technician with an ACCES VR consultant in January 2020 while he was a student at Clear View School at Briarcliff Manor. He applied through the State Office for People with Developmental Disabilities.
Then everything was closed in March due to COVID.
“The plan was very different,” said his mother, Francesca Hagadus-McHale. The idea of taking online prep courses offered by Westchester Community College wouldn’t work, she said.
When ACCES-VR got back on track after about six months, McHale was placed in supervised employment at Muscoot Farm, a dream come true for him. There he worked three half days a week for about a year, with less and less supervision required. McHale still volunteers at Muscoot Farm in Katonah and Westchester’s SPCA at Briarcliff Manor.
Then McHale personally enrolled for a semester at Delhi University, with ACCES VR paying. It was difficult and lonely. But he passed his three courses.
He is now taking the WCC Veterinary Assistant course, which is paid for by his family. ACCES VR will pay for a non-credit animal care course at Putnam Northern Westchester BOCES. On Thursday, he walked Sadie, the 7-year-old pit bull owned by instructor Christina Urbanski, Sadie, who is used by students to practice bathing, take vital signs measurements and general grooming. However, Sadie is rewarded with plenty of snacks and lots of attention.
The BOCES course ends in June, Hagadus-McHale said, “so now we’re looking at the next phase of things.”
McHale said in the fall he will have to take on a challenge for him, college-level math, which is an integral part of his career goals. “Math is the one I struggle with the most,” he admitted.
The McHales’ contact at ACCES VR has since left the company and Thomas has yet to meet with the new coordinator there.
Hagadus-McHale said COVID has slowed the plan but believes Thomas McHale will achieve his goal and build a career as a veterinarian. “As long as he’s supported, he can get there. And he will get there.”
As for the Court’s audit, which alleges ACCES-VR took too long to hit key indicators of individuals’ progress, Hagadus-McHale said it was difficult to assess. But “it should take as long as it should. That’s all.”
What the test showed
While the Comptroller’s report found that through 2019 New York had seen an improvement in employment rates for people with disabilities, any gains from the pandemic have been wiped out.
Between October 2020 and the end of September 2021, only 5,609 out of 44,624 ACCES-VR participants had received a job placement, a decrease of 30% from the previous fiscal year, according to the auditor’s report.
In its reply, the SED said that employment statistics alone were not a measure of success.
BRIDGES’ Martinez agreed.
“They didn’t really measure quality, they looked at quantity,” Martinez said of the auditor’s criteria. “We’re trying to spark a sense of self-empowerment.”
ACCESS-VR is a highly specific program. Participants and consultants develop an Individualized Employment Plan or IPE. Often other agencies that serve people with disabilities work on these IPEs and provide the specific training.
The Court’s audit found that ACCESS-VR often went beyond the 30-day threshold to determine whether an individual would be accepted into the program. The process of developing an IPE is said to take 90 days, but even that often took longer, according to auditors. Annual reviews required nationwide — the minimum requirement — are also sometimes late, the review says.
In a federal examination in 2018, the Ministry of Education was instructed to accelerate the schedule. Education officials said the program addressed those concerns, and federal agencies consider the issue resolved.
The Court’s office also said that too often the ACCES VR consultants used “vague or canned” language in IPEs. Such plans should be detailed and specific.
The State Department of Education claimed that the Office of the Auditor General viewed some files but did not visit and inspect the full files. Karhan, the labor expert at Cornell, agreed.
“Most of the quality happens in the field,” he said. “I agree VR you are missing the image. Go to the authorities and look at the case files.”
The Office of the Court of Auditors replied that the program had still fallen short. “There is always room for improvement.”
The stakes, auditors said, are high.
“Insufficient monitoring, incomplete IPEs and delays in an already complex process can prevent participants from finding employment,” the auditor’s report states, “which may further limit participants’ goals of living independently and getting out of poverty will be disturbed.”
Nancy Cutler writes about People & Policy. Click here for their latest stories. Follow her on Twitter at @nancyrockland.