The data is clear: disabled Americans have far worse employment and educational outcomes than their non-disabled peers.1 Disabled Americans are about half as likely to have college degrees than non-disabled Americans, about twice as likely to live below the poverty threshold, and when they are at work, they earn less, on average, than non-disabled workers in similar roles. The U.S. Department of Labor estimates that only 21.3 percent of disabled Americans are employed, despite record federal appropriations for specific employment services for disabled workers and estimated increased employment support and work incentive programming over the past decade.

The pathway to employment for disabled Americans is fraught with obstacles. Part of the blame can be placed on structural and attitudinal barriers to access, such as inaccessible transportation systems and employer reluctance to hire disabled workers. Certainly, the disincentives to work currently found in policies such as Supplemental Security Income (SSI) also contribute to keeping the rate of employment among disabled Americans lower than it could and should be.

One area that is less frequently discussed, however, is the role that state-level supports play in preparing disabled individuals to explore employment opportunities and develop their careers. This commentary will briefly discuss state-level programming designed to help disabled Americans prepare for and enter the workforce, with a focus on pre-employment supports for young people with disabilities, and make recommendations to improve these programs.

Workforce Development through Vocational Rehabilitation

The primary range of state-level services designed to support disabled individuals seeking to engage in competitive integrated employment is collectively known as vocational rehabilitation (VR). Every year since the passage of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, Congress has appropriated a set amount of money to each state’s vocational rehabilitation agency for them to carry out services, conduct professional trainings, and pay service vendors. First envisioned in the 1920s and strongly influenced by the disability rights and community living movements of the 1960s and 1970s, the ultimate goal of vocational rehabilitation is to support as many disabled people as possible in accessing meaningful job roles in their communities.

While early VR services focused on retraining workers with physical disabilities to perform different types of manual labor, modern VR services offer a broad range of supports, such as physical and cognitive evaluations and assessments, career counseling, adaptive job training, assistive technology, job placement services, and need-based financial support for higher education (provided a student is studying a subject that their VR counselor agrees will lead to a desired job outcome). While data on the long-term efficacy of VR services is limited (due to data collection processes being overhauled in 2014), research shows that a number of the most common VR services lead to positive outcomes—especially when compared to antiquated and discriminatory models of employment support, such as subminimum wage at sheltered workshops.

Of the federal funds appropriated to state vocational rehabilitation agencies by Congress ($3.5 billion this year), 15 percent is required to be reserved for Pre-Employment and Transition Services, a relatively new set of services explicitly designed to support students with disabilities in building the skills and confidence needed to achieve success in the workforce. Unlike traditional VR services, which require individuals to go through detailed application processes and to work with state VR counselors to develop individualized plans for employment, Pre-ETS programming is available to all students with disabilities as early as age 14.

Some experts argue this extension of VR through Pre-ETS is placing undue stress on the broader VR system. While thorough data on the efficacy of Pre-ETS is not yet available (as requirements relating to Pre-ETS were established in 2014 with the passage of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, and as data collection began in 2017 and was impacted soon after by the COVID-19 pandemic), early studies show that some of the core Pre-ETS services, such as job exploration counseling, workforce readiness training, and instruction in self-advocacy, can notably improve outcomes for students with disabilities during a critical time in any young person’s development.

The Promise and Challenge of Supporting Youth with Disabilities

The case for Pre-ETS becomes particularly strong when taking into account the “services cliff” that many young people with disabilities face after completing secondary education. Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), students with disabilities are mandated to receive a comprehensive set of supports through their school system, which may include accommodations, modifications, evaluations, and related services such as physical, occupational, and/or speech therapies. Upon completing secondary education, students with disabilities often find themselves having to navigate complex, obfuscated systems to obtain the supports that were mandated to be delivered to them up until that point in their lives. This was true in my experience. As a disabled person, and a former transition counselor who worked with young people with disabilities, I have seen countless young people labor to make their way through the maze of emails, phone calls, doctor’s appointments, and paperwork that the broader system of disability-related supports, which VR is a part of, requires individuals to navigate in order to receive services, and in order to live with dignity. Even with support from community, or the plethora of nonprofits that aim to assist with systems advocacy, the process of getting support can take years, and administrative burdens are a distressingly common barrier to access for disabled individuals across the United States.

Given the objective of broad accessibility for Pre-ETS, the services are uniquely positioned to provide self-advocacy instruction to young people at an essential time—while also providing practical workplace readiness and career exploration skills. But despite the promise of Pre-ETS, and the federal mandate to set aside funding to administer them, there are a number of issues that have impacted the adoption of these services since the passage of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) in 2014.

The requirement to make Pre-ETS available to all students with disabilities has presented a significant challenge to the broader VR system—a system already grappling with high caseloads and stunning rates of turnover. In the first year that data on Pre-ETS was collected, state VR agencies reported providing half a million Pre-ETS to almost 180,000 students with disabilities, roughly 34 percent of the number of students who are eligible to receive Pre-ETS under WIOA. Some officials within the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (OSERS), the branch of the U.S. Department of Education that oversees VR agencies, worry that the influx of new clients to state agencies, combined with the requirement to reserve 15 percent of funds for Pre-ETS, will add immense strain to the already strained VR system in the years to come.

Additionally, the lack of guidance on what Pre-ETS should look like in practice has led to programming that can vary wildly from vendor to vendor and county to county, let alone from state to state. While OSERS has taken some steps to work with technical assistance centers in order to provide concrete guidance to service vendors, more guidance is needed from the Department of Education to standardize these services across states, and to better advertise them to young people with disabilities and their families.

Policy Recommendations

As our nation grapples with learning losses and service disruptions in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, investments in workforce development opportunities for young people with disabilities are more important than ever. Policy makers must take action to make it easier for students to engage in meaningful transition activities, while also taking steps to make the VR system more efficient. Policy recommendations include:

  • A Rehabilitation Services Administration mandate for improved data collection processes at the state level to identify areas of growth within Pre-ETS, and throughout the VR process, to make real connections to what works, and to where future investments can be made.
  • Standardizing Pre-ETS curricula at the state level to better enable oversight and long-term program evaluations, while also reducing variability between individual service vendors.
  • A Department of Education mandate explicitly incorporating Pre-ETS into the Individualized Education Program and 504 Plan development processes.

With the right guidance, and with additional investment from future administrations, Pre-ETS paired with a meaningful workforce system that works for disabled people in the United States stands to be a crucial step on the long road towards economic justice for all.


  1. This commentary uses person-first and identity-first language throughout. The intentionality behind this choice is to honor the preferences, cultures, and identities within the disability community.