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A Brief History of Vocational Rehabilitation

In the early 20th century, vocational rehabilitation often consisted of providing a person Photo circa 1940: A man seated in a wheelchair repairs watches.with an artificial limb and training in a trade such as watch repair, bookkeeping or machine shop work. People were frequently disabled by circumstances which today point out how much things have changed since then. Streetcar, farming and railroad accidents were common, as were amputations from blood poisoning caused by unsanitary working conditions. Financial compensation for job-related injuries wasn't guaranteed and many people got nothing, or a few hundred dollars at best. Of course, this was at a time when a wage of 50 cents an hour was a lot of money. From a 1921 report on services provided in Ohio:
"Client was born in 1876 in Tennessee. In 1907, he suffered a very high amputation of his left arm and the amputation of his right arm just above the elbow. This was made necessary by an injury sustained in a dynamite accident while he was working in a stone quarry in Tennessee. He never received any compensation. Because of his disability, he was unable to find any regular work and for years made what money he could by retailing coal in one of the poorer districts of the city. He delivered the coal in sacks which he carried between his teeth."

Photo circa 1915: A man who lost the use of a leg hand-knits socks with a tabletop machine.

World War I created thousands of veterans with disabilities and in 1918, Congress passed the Soldiers Rehabilitation Act to provide them with job training. After much political wrangling, the general public was offered similar services when on June 2, 1920, President Woodrow Wilson created this country's vocational rehabilitation program as he signed into law PL 236. Six weeks later, Ohio Governor Harry L. Davis approved a proclamation making official Ohio's vocational rehabilitation partnership with the federal government.

Rehabilitation in our state actually started long before 1920. The Ohio State Schools for the Deaf and Blind were built in Columbus at the close of the Civil War. In 1900, Ohio became the first state to provide aid to local schools for the education of children with severe disabilities.

Photo circa 1945: A man who is blind and wearing dark glasses demonstrates piecework.
The Commission for the Blind (the forerunner of RSC 's Bureau of Services for the Visually Impaired) was created in 1908 to develop and maintain industrial training schools and workshops to employ "suitable" people who were blind. Broom making was considered a good occupation.

In 1922, with the Roaring Twenties in full swing, Ohio's Bureau of Vocational Rehabilitation (BVR) successfully rehabilitated 258 people into jobs, with a staff of only six. By 1935, BVR offices were open in Columbus, Cleveland, Cincinnati and Canton. An employee proudly reported that 25 adults with heart-related disabilities were placed in permanent employment "at an average weekly wage of $16.09."

The vocational rehabilitation program survived the Great Depression and its 25 percent unemployment rate. With passage of the Social Security Act in 1935, Congress provided permanent authority (and an annual appropriation of $3.5 million) for the program as "a matter of social justice, a permanent ongoing public duty..." A bill of major importance to Americans with visual disabilities, the Randolph-Sheppard Act of 1936, authorized the federal government to license people who were blind to operate vending stands in federal buildings, and subsequently on other federal property. The Ohio Commission for the Blind was designated as the state's Randolph-Sheppard licensing agency, a function still retained today by RSC's Bureau of Services for the Visually Impaired.
Photo circa 1940s: A woman with curvature of the spine operates a comptometer.In 1945, Ohio had another "first" - the opening of a short-term, intensive-care facility established in Youngstown to diagnose and treat people with mental illness without the stigma of incarceration in an asylum. At the end of World War II, Congress passed a measure adding additional money to underwrite states' administrative costs for vocational rehabilitation. This enabled BVR to open more new offices. Ohio's Commission for the Blind depended on staff of the state Department of Public Welfare to administer its program, with only a few employees to cover the entire state.

The Korean War provided the incentive for greater federal support of vocational rehabilitation and by 1958, the federal appropriation was $65 million. Earlier Social Security Act amendments provided disability insurance benefits and stressed rehabilitation as a way of returning those who were able to gainful employment. A Disability Determination section of BVR was established in 1955 to process these claims.
By 1968, BVR had 51 offices throughout Ohio. That same year, an Ohio Governor's Council on Vocational Rehabilitation recommended the implementation of an Ohio Rehabilitation Services Commission to administer all of the state's vocational rehabilitation programs.
Photo circa 1947: A woman who is blind demonstrates typing transcription. In the background, a man who is blind tunes a piano. On June 10, 1970, Governor James A. Rhodes signed HB 929 into law. It provided for the creation of an independent seven-member commission to direct Ohio's vocational rehabilitation program. The Ohio Rehabilitation Services Commission officially began existence three months later. The Bureau of Services for the Blind was transferred to RSC from the Department of Public Welfare, and BVR was transferred from the Department of Education. BVR's Disability Determination section was established as RSC's Bureau of Disability Determination. A new age of vocational rehabilitation had come to Ohio.

Thirty years later, the Ohio Rehabilitation Services Commission operates with a $241.5 million budget and provides vocational rehabilitation services to more than 44,000 people annually. During 1999, more than 6,500 Ohioans with disabilities were rehabilitated into successful employment. Average hourly wages ranged from $6.40 to $16.07 - a far cry from the 50 cents of early last century.

The past decade has seen increasing numbers of Americans with disabilities in the workforce, yet a substantial percentage are still unemployed or underemployed. The past and future advantages of vocational rehabilitation are undeniable, and RSC believes that all people with disabilities can benefit from services and become more capable. This, in turn, will enhance an economy where employers go begging for skilled workers. The opportunities are limitless.

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Contact RSC

In Ohio, call 1-800-282-4536 voice/TTY
Outside Ohio, call (614) 438-1200 voice/TTY
Monday - Friday, 8:15 a.m. - 4:45 p.m. Eastern Standard Time

Ted Strickland, Governor
John M. Connelly, RSC Executive Director
400 E. Campus View Blvd
Columbus, OH 43235-4604