Pennsylvania's proposed waiting list for disabled-jobs program criticized at Allentown hearing
Morning Call - 5/23/2019
May 23-- May 23--Michelle Mitchell has benefited from Pennsylvania'sOffice of Vocational Rehabilitation by attending college, purchasing equipment such as computers and software, and buying transportation.
"The orange van outside is mine," Mitchell said of a specialized vehicle that enables her to drive despite the cerebral palsy for which she uses a wheelchair.
Mitchell spoke Wednesday at the OVR Allentown office during a public hearing on a proposal that would prevent new applicants from applying for job services or other assistance.
Because the state expects less in federal dollars next fiscal year, it will create a temporary waiting list beginning July 1 for new OVR clients, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Labor & Industry. Services would continue for current clients.
OVR helps people with disabilities become work-ready and live as independently as possible, while also helping employers find workers they need.
State officials say demand for vocational rehabilitation services exceeds available resources. Robert O'Brien, the Labor Department's executive deputy secretary, said the U.S. provides about $130 million annually and the state $35 million. The state also being able to draw down from a separate federal "reallocation fund," but the availability of that additional funding has been less, he said.
Mitchell, 42, a professor at Lehigh Carbon Community College, said the federal Rehabilitation Act was meant to open doors to job opportunities for individuals with disabilities, and to make them productive, taxpaying citizens instead of relying on taxpayer-funded assistance.
"Now it seems like instead of going with the intent of the initial act, they're closing that down," Mitchell said, "and I don't understand what their rationale is or how they're jibing that."
Experts predicted problems with the temporary waiting list, which the state and federal governments refer to as "order of selection."
"I think it's a huge disincentive that obviously will have a negative impact upon the opportunities for people looking to work," said Stephen S. Pennington, executive director of the Pennsylvania Client Assistance Program, a Philadelphia advocacy program for people with disabilities.
O'Brien couldn't estimate how long the temporary waiting list would last, but said officials would assess it at least once a quarter.
"I have to close the order of selection when I can't provide services, and I don't have the financial wherewithal to provide services," O'Brien said during a telephone interview before Wednesday's hearing.
The state estimates that about 1,200 people per month, including about 40 from the Lehigh Valley, would wind up on the list.
The last fiscal year, the state received more than 21,000 new applications. During that period, 810 people in the Lehigh Valley applied for vocational assistance. OVR served 1,160 Valley residents and helped to employ about 230, the state said.
Mitchell, who credits OVR with enabling her to graduate from Penn State, said a waiting list would cause some prospective clients to miss a life-changing opportunity by denying them the chance to act upon a "moment of passion" many experience in striving to become productive.
"And that's really what it is," said the Allentown resident, who is also board president of Lehigh Valley Center for Independent Living.
Morning Call reporter Anthony Salamone can be reached at 610-820-6694 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
The state will accept comment until 5 p.m.June 4. Send your views via email to OVRFeedback@pa.gov; include "OOS closing all categories" in the subject line. Or, mail to OVR Central Office, c/o Cindy Mundis, 1521 N. Sixth St., Harrisburg, PA 17102.
The Pennsylvania Department of Labor & Industry has posted a list of questions about the potential vocational rehabilitation waiting list at: www.dli.pa.gov/Individuals/Disability-Services/OOS/Pages/FAQs.aspx
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