Input of the State Rehabilitation Council
All agencies, except for those that are independent consumer-controlled commissions, must describe the following: Input provided by the State Rehabilitation Council, including input and recommendations on the VR services portion of the Unified or Combined State Plan, recommendations from the Council's report, the review and analysis of consumer satisfaction, and other Council reports that may have been developed as part of the Council’s functions.
The following State Rehabilitation Council input is provided to Michael MacKillop, Acting Executive Director of the Washington State Department of Services for the Blind, for inclusion in the 2021 State Plan. Input was gathered from Washington State Rehabilitation Council for the Blind members present at committee meetings in 2021 and compiled by the SRC Executive Committee. Agency responses follow each SRC comment.
State Rehabilitation Council (SRC) comment a.1.
Related to DSB’s goal of refining and enhancing outcomes for business and agency participants, the SRC has the following questions and comments: What is DSB doing to increase participant apprenticeship and internship opportunities? Is there a focus on what skills participants need for success; are they motivated self-starters; do they have excellent computer skills on all platforms; are troubleshooting skills present; are there agency resources to turn to when needed?
Agency response a.1:
The agency has had good experiences and results in the past developing adult internship and work-based opportunities where a participant can demonstrate their skills and value hands-on to an employer, often leading to an offer of employment. However, the agency has not historically been connected the registered apprenticeship and work-driven training opportunities that exist among the workforce development system. We are eager to develop pathways for agency participants to these established avenues for developing the skillsets that businesses need and to securing quality, well-paid jobs.
An internship is useful for an individual who has completed theoretical training within a field and then requires hands on experience. By contrast, apprenticeships are used to teach individuals specialized skills in fields that are high demand, and don’t require prior training. Thus the agency wants to provide avenues for both internships and apprenticeships to meet the range of needs and experiences of participants in their pathway to a quality career. If we are working with an individual who is looking to develop new skillsets, the focus should be on apprenticeships, short term trainings, entry level employment and other opportunities in the community.
The agency’s new Business Relations Manager started in October 2021, and has made apprenticeships and work-driven training programs a priority. The Business Relations Manager is creating an internal guide for employees regarding internships and apprenticeships to give VRC’s more information on opportunities within the community for those they support. He has also made early efforts to meet with pre-apprenticeship programs such as Palmer Scholars, with Labor and Industries non-traditional apprenticeship programs such as Workers Compensation Adjudication, and with the Aerospace Joint Apprenticeship Committee.
A challenge with many apprenticeships are secondary requirements that add an obstacle for individuals with a visual disability, such as a requirement for a driver’s license. Many of the apprenticeships require this even if the work doesn’t involve driving, and it currently seems a difficult obstacle to get around (especially if the apprenticeship is through a Union).
Benefits counseling is critical for anyone considering an apprenticeship program, as those engaged in paid work-based training can earn on average around $22 an hour, according to Labor and Industries data. Earning a high wage can impact the timeline and limits for Social Security trial work experience, creating a negative hit on benefits if not planned for. Utilizing SSI/SSDI counseling early in the plan is vital, as well as utilizing the Wage Subsidy/Blind Work Expenses for those we support that are on SSI/SSDI.
The strength of a pre-apprenticeship, work-driven training or apprenticeship program is that the specific work skills are not required at the outset – the programs intend to train the individual in the specific skills needed for the work. However, mastery of foundational skills, such as navigation of technology, and demonstration of softer skills such as problem-solving, logic, and communication are the keys to eligibility. The Apprenti IT apprenticeship program describes essential eligibility characteristics as “persistence and ability to learn new concepts quickly; being collaborative and able to get along well with a variety of personalities and backgrounds; responsibility and determination to complete the program and get the job done.
Strong computer skills and mastery of adaptive software are critical skills for any training program and career track, and they are critical for any apprenticeship or work-driven training program. The agency has a strong history for ensuring technology is engaged in early in the rehabilitation process, and supports the training and mastery of navigation and trouble shooting technology.
The agency’s Youth Services programs and the Orientation and Training Program provide participants frequent opportunity to build and improve these softer skill sets. The regional vocational rehabilitation have developed group activities locally to focus on building collaboration skills. VR Counselors provide information about community activities, such as consumer organizations, that can sharpen these softer skills.
The persistence in starting and succeeding in learning the adaptive skills of blindness can also tie in to an individual’s ability to describe their tenacity and ability to see a program to completion. Living with a disability in environments that constantly put up barriers and obstacles can naturally deepen problem solving skills. Activities and counseling that help an individual realize their dependable strengths can bring a confidence that more deliberately puts those natural skills to use.
Lastly, the agency had applied for a demonstration grant in 2021 with the intent to expand our reach into apprenticeships. While we were not selected for the grant, we will continue to pursue opportunities to grow our presence in this area of career pathways.
SRC comment a.2.
How is information about customers barriers, limitations and support needs shared across DSB programs, ex. OTC, BEP, Rehab Techs? Many of these program’s experiences could provide useful information to support vocational goals.
Agency response a.2:
Communication and collaboration among staff is frequent in order to provide the individual the best supports possible when a participant is engaged in multiple aspects of the Vocational Rehabilitation program within the agency. There are numerous times a participant may transition from one part of the vocational rehabilitation program to another, and coordination is key to an easy and streamlined experience for the participant where they don’t need to repeat their life story endlessly and staff are prepared to follow the direction and add the supports needed to make progress in the individual’s vocational rehabilitation plan.
One common transition is from the Youth Services Program to the adult Vocational Rehabilitation Program. Students often are engaged with the agency Pre-Employment Transition Services before applying for VR services, as a “potentially eligible student”. At age 14, students are encouraged to apply for VR services to bridge the pre-employment generalized career exploration and the more individualized vocational rehabilitation services towards adult career pathways. The Youth Services procedures are clear about the warm handshake and information sharing in this transition:
“…It is the YSS’s (Youth Services Specialist’s) responsibility to initiate the referral to DSB’s VR program and VRC that serves the SWD’s (Student With a Disability’s) hometown. Pre-ETS should be viewed as a generalized, short term work readiness program that prepares youth to fully benefit as a VR participant.
YSS coordinates the youth referrals to educate the youth and their parents about the variety of individual VR services that Pre-ETS cannot provide. The “warm handshake” from PEI to VR is critical and the YSS is the central role in this referral process. […]
Careful coordination and communication among YSS, VRC, and the student/parent ensures a smooth transition from PEI to VR…”
The Orientation and Training Center (OTC) maintains on-going communications with the local VR team, highlighted in these areas:
- Planning Conferences/Initial Interviews: When a student first comes to the OTC, following assessment week, they participate in a Planning Conference with OTC staff and the student’s VRC. During this initial meeting, expectations for the students are laid out for each class and the overall OTC experience. This provides an opportunity to discuss expectations with the students and for each individual instructor to lay out their expectations with the student. The new OTC manager plans to hold one-on-one interviews with students to discuss what is expected of them as an OTC student.
- Case conferences: Case conferences are held every term with the student/participant’s team, including the VRC, all OTC staff connected, and anyone else who may be of interest in the student’s case.
- Aware: OTC staff document all student issues, challenges, and barriers in the data management system so others at DSB can have access to that information.
- Regular Communication with VRC’s: If a student issue arises during a given term, OTC staff immediately address that issue and do not wait until scheduled case or planning conferences to discuss with the local VR team. For example, a student at the OTC was recently struggling with creating a working resume. Because OTC staff time is limited, the team reached out to the student’s VRC and set up a 10-hour contract with an outside vendor to assist the student specifically with resume writing.
- Counseling: The OTC provides the opportunity to students to seek counseling if needed, for personal challenges/struggles, or adjustment to blindness relates struggles. OTC staff can assist in setting up these appointments through the student’s VRC, and can help the student set up re-occurring appointments.
The VR Procedures Manual also defines the critical process for a warm-handshake meeting and information sharing at any case transfer:
“…There are a number of steps to be taken prior to transferring the case. The current VRC completes as best as possible all actions, activities and authorizations that are required to allow a seamless progression of the case. This may include case activities such as completing eligibility or an Individualized Plan for Employment (IPE).
The current VRC enters documentation in the electronic case folder identifying the need for a transfer, summarizing case services and activities up to the point of transfer. The VRC then informs their Regional Area Manager and the RAM of the region receiving the transfer. The receiving RAM completes the transfer in the case management system and informs the transferring VRC which VRC will be accepting the case.
The transferring VRC initiates contact with the VRC receiving the transfer to discuss the case and any pertinent information the new VRC may need to know about the participant. The transferring VRC then informs the participant of the transfer and offers a meeting to make the introduction and discuss pertinent information to the case…”
In order to maximize the success of an individual’s vocational rehabilitation activities, we cannot silo our efforts – a warm hand off, relevant and contextual information sharing, and continued lines of communication among the VR teams working with the individual are all essential.
SRC comment a.3
How can DSB ensure that VRCs and OTC staff encourage high expectations of DSB participants? The SRC values job shadowing and job interest interviewing with blind workers in their interested fields, as pathways to obtaining valuable careers. These opportunities should be considered at eligibility and throughout the vocational planning process.
Agency response a.3
One of DSB’s dependable strengths is having high expectations and a deep belief in the abilities of DSB participants to achieve a career pathway that is a strong fit for their individual strengths, aptitudes and interests. The Rehabilitation Services Administration team that supports the agency frequently cites the range, quality, and complexity of the careers achieved by agency participants as evidence of this agency value.
Many agency participants come to the agency without a clear understanding of the range of careers available to them. Often an individual with a recent vision loss can take on the mistaken impression that there are a limited number of “jobs that blind people can do”. One of the critical responsibilities of our VR program is to expand the realm of possibility in a career path for a participant.
For youth, the agency’s Pre-Employment Transition Services are designed for intensive exploration of career options, to discover what jobs exist and what jobs provide a good fit for the individual.
For adults, early career exploration is also a key element for success.
VRCs are encouraged to provide career exploration opportunities at all stages – providing information and referral at application, at eligibility, and during the assessment phase to deepen the exploration of career options.
Peer inputs can be very meaningful, especially in early exploration stages. Informational interviews with blind professionals, referrals to consumer group meetings, organizing job seeker panels and facilitating mentorships with former participants are examples of useful ways the agency can provide peer perspectives regarding a career pathway or to better understand workplace expectations.
The incorporation of Labor Market Information – analysis of the types of jobs that exist for the area, the typical salary schedules, the pathways and training needed for a career, understanding the longer term trends for a career, understanding the recruitment processes involved, and identifying the pathways for future promotional movement - are key to an individual making good vocational decisions early on in their vocational rehabilitation case. This is an area of counseling that the agency has targeted for further development for staff.
Informed choice is always part of vocational exploration and high expectations are part of vocational planning.
Career exploration is also a critical part of the Orientation and Training Experience.
- Career Classes and Workshops: To ensure students are focusing on career exploration, job readiness and even job placements, a once-a-week class/seminar for students is held to discuss on many aspects of careers. Students work on job exploration, resume writing, cover letter creation, interviewing skills, informational interviewing, job search skills, training on LinkedIn, and more. In addition to the regular weekly Careers class, students participate in one or two career workshops each term, which may include panels of blind employed individuals, HR representatives talking about what they look for in employees, and interviewing tip experts, among other topics.
- Business Engagement Relationship Building: To connect with more employers, the OTC has begun working with the Business Relations Manager to determine how the OTC can better meet the needs of the students at the OTC. This newly developed relationship will help the OTC better connect to employers, find meaningful blind mentors, and connect better with HR for guidance on hiring practices.
- Staff Expectations: The staff continue to have regular dialogue and conversation about expectations for students at the OTC. Staff are finding new and unique ways of helping their students be accountable to accomplishing what is asked of them at the OTC. For example, staff review (high) expectations for their class at the beginning of the term and are creating ways to hold students accountable for meeting those expectations. Staff develop their skill sets by attending trainings, consumer conferences, and other workshops to continue growing in their teaching styles and helping students to set high-standard goals and expectations.
SRC comment a.4
The SRC endorses DSB’s commitment to increased focus on business engagement to expand job opportunities for blind agency participants. DSB has hired a new business relations specialist. What will the responsibilities related to this position be? Will there be a focus on developing new employer relationships? Will there be a focus on engaging with and training employers about blindness and reasonable accommodations? Will DSB join business entities, such as the chamber of commerce? The SRC is recommending that trainings and tours of DSB for employers and community partners occur every six months.
Agency response a.4
The Business Relations Manager has been with the agency for less than two months, but has worked to create an extensive vision for the position.
Initial activities for the Business Relations Manager include five primary areas of focus:
- Internal Education of DSB staff of different sectors/employers in the community
- Internal Processes for how DSB staff interact with businesses
- External engagement of employers
- Creating opportunities between DSB staff and employers
- Creating forums/opportunities between DSB participants/employers
Below is a list of projects currently in process:
- VRC survey (Completed).
- Creating a promotional email in order to get more client referrals. (December Due Date)
- Connecting Business Services with VRC’s (Early December Due Date)
- Creating a guide to Internships/Apprenticeships for our VRC/Staff supporting VRC’s (January due date)
- Creating a Communications/Outreach plan to businesses (Ongoing)
- CRP effectiveness project (Ongoing)
- Creating a list of MOU/Community partners that we can refer to for services (free services as opposed to paying for services through a CRP).
- Monthly meeting with VRC’s. Create training materials/get presenters. Depending on the meeting. (Ongoing)
- I-Stem Project (Ongoing)
- Self-Employment Committee Duties
- Strategic Employer Relationship Development
- WIOA compliance
- MOU engagement statewide, duties/projects as assigned
- Creating a procedure (VR Manual) for business engagement when businesses contact the agency.
Future Projects/Potential Projects
- Surveying the agency to see where there is Business Services being provided (ie. AT staff). Create procedures around how they are marketed, advertised, provided.
- VR-Net projects, as assigned.
- Career Class/Employer Integration
The Business Relations Manager has plans in process to schedule employers for tours of the DSB facilities and AT & Low Vision Labs, such as FedEx Freight and the US Navy.
The Business Relations Manager has expressed interest in future targeted connections to Business entities such as the Chamber of Commerce, Rotary, and others only after there is a larger Business Relations Team. The outreach to business entities such as the Chamber of Commerce must be done strategically and consistently. The amount of time it takes can be excessive and may take away from other initiatives that are more strategic, so the priority for those entities now is lower.
The agency Communications Coordinator and Business Relations Manager are working together to update the agency’s outreach trainings to business audiences. The intent is to make the messaging more recruiter centric, such as highlighting: the number of participants that have degrees; retention information; intangible traits within the disability/blind community; success stories; and employer testimonials. The messaging will highlight the ability and value that agency participants can bring to the business.
SRC comment a.5
The SRC values self-employment as an important career choice for some participants. How will DSB assist participants who choose self-employment? Expectations need to be clear for both participants and VRCs, including a thorough understanding of DSB procedures and resources.
Agency response a.5
DSB defines self-employment as a participant-owned, managed and operated business that sells goods or services for the purpose of making a profit.
Historically, and consistently, self-employment makes up around ten percent of agency employment outcomes each year. Self-employment represents a high value potential for individuals who have innate entrepreneurial characteristics, marketable ideas, and deep understanding and analysis of the local market opportunities and challenges. The agency promotes and supports self-employment as an exceptional pathway for those for whom entrepreneurship is a strong fit.
While there have been changes in staff leadership this year around the agency’s self-employment efforts, the agency’s commitment and intent towards offering necessary supports towards self-employment continue to be strong.
DSB counselors are responsible for helping participants in exploring entrepreneurship to determine whether this choice is a good vocational fit for the individual. DSB counselors support interested participants to explore self-employment through a range of activities which can include: counseling and guidance around self-employment that can include a discussion of critical employment factors, informational interviews with business owners, attending community trainings/workshops, and job shadowing. The VRC and participant identify the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats/challenges to the participant’s fit as an entrepreneur.
Once self-employment is determined to be a good fit for an individual, the counselor works with the participant directly to identify and develop a business idea into a feasible and sustainable business plan, or may connect the participant to community resources to develop a feasibility study and business plan. The business plan is presented before an internal self-employment panel to ensure that considerations to lower risk and ensure success of the business plan are in place. Before presenting the business proposal to the panel, all adaptive skills needed to run and maintain the business should be mastered.
The VR Procedures for self-employment provide clarity to the steps involved in developing a self-employment business plan, and the expectations for presenting a successful proposal. In keeping the end goal in mind at the beginning, these expectations are listed in the procedures manual:
“…The VRC encourages the participant to present their business plan to the committee in a clear, concise manner illustrating their business idea and the likelihood to succeed profitably. The following considerations are recommended:
- A demonstration of deep familiarity and careful analysis of the business proposal and how it meets an identified market need
- An understanding of the challenges ahead and the contingencies considered to meet them
- A strong sense of realism and determination to success
- A passion for the business
- An openness to suggestions, balanced with a confidence and belief in the proposed business model
Proposals are evaluated by the Self-Employment Committee in four functional areas:
- Entrepreneurial preparedness
- Marketing and operations
- Financial planning
- Economic viability…”
To deepen the agency’s ability to support agency participants in self-employment efforts, the agency plans to expand its connection with other community organizations such as the Small Business Association and other relevant organizations that support small businesses and business owners. There are plans to re-visit training agency staff on the benefits, risks, characteristics and supports helpful in opening a small business.
The Business Enterprise Program authorized under the Randolph-Sheppard Act is an important component of the agency’s self-employment readiness activity, and is one of many potential avenues for business ownership for agency participants. While the BEP vendors took a devastating hit during the pandemic when their customer base in government buildings were all working from home, the agency plans to overhaul its Business Enterprise Program facilities and operations towards increased profitability for the blind BEP-licensed vendors with a one-time ask of state dollars over five years. If funded, the analysis indicates an estimated increased profitability margin from 7% to over 20% for the BEP vendors. The BEP remains an critical piece of the DSB self-employment story.
SRC comment a.6
The SRC recommends that VRCs refer participants to WCB and NFB to learn about the consumer groups and meet other people who are blind and working in different careers. It is also recommended that VRCs, and other DSB staff attend both NFB and WCB conventions annually. VRCs should be asked to send scholarship applications to all students.
Agency response a.6
The agency understands the power of the consumer organizations in offering peer supports to agency participants that assist in building confidence and providing key information in progress towards a vocational goal. The consumer organizations are a key referral resource provided to all participants.
DSB staff share information about consumer organizations and activities with participants at intake by sharing member organization outreach materials, and on-going throughout interaction with participants. For example, the Washington Council of the Blind sends information about local and virtual activities to the agency weekly, which are disseminated to staff and to participants.
Attendance to the state conventions for both the National Federation of the Blind – Washington (NFB-W) and the Washington Council of the Blind (WCB) are encouraged and supported for participants who have never attended, and all OTC students attend both state conventions and document their impressions as part of the training center curriculum. Both NFB-W and WCB place a strong emphasis on employment at the conventions, providing those agency participants who attend excellent background and guidance on the vocational successes of other individuals with a visual disability.
Scholarship applications through the two organizations are encouraged for all active students in post-secondary tracks, and frequently the consumer organization scholarship awardees are also active DSB participants.
There has been discussion in 2021 of how to develop a stronger system for connecting agency participants who are exploring their career pathways with peer blind consumer organization members who are or have worked in a similar field. Both NFB-W and WCB has offered this as an option to executive leadership, to staff in the regional meetings, and broadly during community forums. Managers have followed up with staff to enquire whether the agency has followed up on the offers, and it feels that this avenue has not been fully implemented as a resource. It is a goal for 2022 to continue to build on this resource.
The consumer organizations have been key for agency staff to get connected to the vibrancy, philosophy and current political and social focus of the blind community. The agency has had enormous turn over as a result of retirements in the past three years, and there are many staff new to the blindness field working in the agency. A deep understanding of the context in which staff work is essential in order to provide the supports needed by agency participants, and the consumer organizations play a crucial role in the development of DSB staff. NFB-W and WCB members have presented to DSB VR staff in all three agency regions. As with agency participants, agency staff are strongly encouraged and supported to attend the state conventions and local meetings. In the past two years the virtual format for the conventions have broadened the reach of staff to join in the convention activity, and we hope there will continue to be a hybrid remote way to connect as we move out from the pandemic and in-person events begin to recur.
SRC comment a.7
In the area of equity, diversity and inclusion what is DSB doing related to planning, activities and data collection? What are state agency requirements related to equity, diversity and inclusion?
Agency response a.7
The State of Washington under Governor Jay Inslee has made a commitment to actively promoting diversity, equity, inclusion and anti-racism among state government.
The Office of Equity was established in 2021 and has been working with DSB to begin to identify ways to increase access to equitable opportunities in order to bridge opportunity gaps and reduce disparities. DSB and all other state agencies are working with the Office of Equity to develop the state’s five-year equity plan. The agency held listening sessions and broadly sought external and internal comment towards building the five-year equity plan, which will be launched in 2022.
In late 2020, the agency released its new DEI policy and accompanying Respectful Work Environment policy. Within the DEI policy, the agency “…recognizes that although we cannot change the oppressive and discriminatory practices of the past, we have control over the workplace culture we create today and in the future. Much work remains for us as a department and as individuals to accept our responsibility and seize our opportunity to dismantle the internal policies, procedures, systems and practices that perpetuate inequity…”
The policy requires that staff make a welcoming work environment for colleagues and visitors, which is more fully defined in the Respectful Work Environment policy. The policy also requires staff to engage in continuous learning, development and training offered in the areas of diversity, inclusion, cultural humility, oppression and equity. Many staff have been enrolled in the 25 hour pilot DEI trainings put on by the Office of Financial Management, and all staff who engage in recruitment activities and on interview panels are required to complete an Implicit Bias training. The Office of Equity Director Dr. Karen Johnson has met with the agency’s leadership twice in 2021, assigning readings to help develop a shared awareness of the impact of racial oppression, and guided discussion from the reading.
The DEI policy requires agency leadership to promote diversity in recruitment, hiring, and professional development; to ensure diversity, equity and inclusion is a continuously present focus in department decisions; and gather the voices and perspectives of marginalized and oppressed communities to influence and inform our priorities now and in the future. The agency has developed systems for gathering community input in the hiring of key positions, such as the recent recruitment for the Orientation and Training Center Program Manager and the upcoming recruitment for the new HR Liaison and DEI Program Manager position.
The agency is in process of recruiting a manager position to lead DEI activities in the agency. Tasks within the position description include coordinating development and planning of DEI strategic initiative, policy and DSB staff training; developing definitions, statewide strategies and best practices for policies, training, employee onboarding, reporting processes, and business alignment to comply with Governor Inslee’s Inclusive and Respectful Work Environments Memorandum; serving as an advisor to leadership and teams on DEI topics, best practices, and engagement; and assessing equity and cultural competency training needs for agency staff and executive leadership.
In December 2021, Governor Inslee issued a Directive 21-24 that charges the Workforce system partners, including DSB, to create strategies, and performance measures that ensure access to services for designated focus populations and measure progress in connecting focus populations to employment opportunities. The communities identified include: Black, Asian, Native Hawaiian, Compact of Free Association (COFA) nations, and Pacific Islander communities; Latinos; LGBTQ communities; expectant persons; and veterans.
These identified communities generally align with target communities identified in the WIOA legislation, and the agency has data tracking systems in place to ensure that the agency’s service population is representative of general demographics. In the past the agency had under-represented the Latino/a and Asian communities, but through targeted outreach efforts has consistently brought service levels to and above parity with the general state population demographics. We have not gathered data on participant LGBTQ identity in the past, and some thought will be given in 2022 how to meet that expectation.
Data tracking on the results of services is more complex than analyzing the numbers served, and it is an area of agency interest for understanding more deeply. Statistically, it can difficult to understand trends when disaggregating data by categories when we work with a small population and have small numbers of outcomes. Yet it is important to understand if there are suggestions that agency service provision or the successful results of services aren’t equitably received.
Centralized efforts through the Office of Financial Management have been enacted in 2021 among all state agencies to better understand staff demographics for hiring, leadership representation and salary equity. Because DSB is classified as a small agency, all demographic data is gathered together within a small agency category in order to not provide identifiable data. With the statewide changes in data tracking and analysis, the agency expects to have a clearer understanding of the agency’s baseline in 2022 to be able to build specific goals to target in the equity and representation of staff.
The agency, during a listening session in 2021 with all staff, was presented with a perceived gender-based pay equity issue from the Rehabilitation Teachers and Orientation and Mobility Specialist job class. Agency leadership has gathered the voices of those in the job class and put forward a request for pay equity to OFM based in part on the data showing the job class is 80% female, whereas the VRC job class is 50% male/female, and the AT Specialist job class is 75% male.
The agency measures every year the non-client services spending for utilization of vendors with women-, minority- and/or veteran-owned businesses. The utilization of master contracts shows 3% utilization of those prioritized businesses, which, while dismal, is in line with other state agencies. In future, we will be analyzing client service expenditures, which represents the majority of DSB’s goods and services spending. The agency has made efforts in the past year to refresh the certifications for existing client service vendors. Conversations with our qualified vendors demonstrates a challenge for the smaller one-person businesses we often work with to get and maintain certifications that help identify use of prioritized businesses. This area, as with all state agencies, will have more focused efforts to track and increase utilization of prioritized businesses.
In discussions and through survey to the Department of Enterprise Services and the Office of Minority & Women's Business Enterprises, DSB has provided input to urge the addition of disability-owned businesses to consideration of prioritized businesses for state agency expenditures.
Lastly, in tracking and measuring internal success at creating a welcoming work environment for staff, the annual Employee Engagement survey will be used as a tool. From the DEI policy:
“…In the annual State Employee Engagement Survey, by December 31, 2021, the following questions will have a positive increase from the previous year’s responses:
- “A spirit of cooperation and teamwork exists in my work group.”
- “My supervisor treats me with dignity and respect.”
- “At my workplace, I feel valued for who I am as a person.”…”
At this time, the results of the survey have not been published. It was delayed this year due to the pandemic, which may impact the timeline listed in the policy.
SRC comment a.8
What is DSB doing to help participants orient to a new world of remote work? What is the plan to ensure DSB participants are provided with optimum technology training to ensure success with remote job opportunities?
Agency response a.8
The world of remote work provides many opportunities for individuals with disabilities and for individuals with visual disabilities. Transportation, commutes, inaccessible workplace environments and proximity to the workplace are all historical barriers that are eliminated through remote work. The agency has increased efforts to prepare participants for opportunities that may arise in this expanding realm workplace options.
Agency staff are incorporating training on skills needed for remote interviews and work. They are also identifying the technology needed through research done by agency AT Specialists, and inputs of job readiness vendors and contracted trainers. Agency AT Specialists are working on video tutorials for the range of common virtual meeting platforms as a tool for training participants. Troubleshooting skillsets are being addressed as remote workers will be more self-reliant in fixing adaptive technology glitches in the moment.
Through the OTC, students participate in daily/weekly technology classes where they learn how to use accessible technology to best serve them - including JAWS, Fusion, iPhone, ZoomText, SuperNova, and other adaptive tools. It is important to give students training in the most advanced and up-to-date technology to better prepare them for work and remote employment. Throughout the pandemic, students at the OTC were getting daily training and practice on how to use online conferencing platforms like Zoom in order to interact and communicate during virtual learning.
Staff and students at the OTC are encouraged to attend virtual and in-person technology conferences and workshops whenever possible. It is a goal that students become proficient with technology in the ever-changing world of virtual learning and working. Staff attend regular trainings and conference to stay up to date on the latest technology for blind users and are proficient in their area of teaching—this is important in passing along information to meet student’s needs.
In the Careers class, all students at the OTC participate in mock interviews – most recently in a virtual format. Prior to conducting the interviews, staff highlighted that expectations exist for virtual interviewing, and had experts on the topic come and talk to students. The students were interviewed by people outside the OTC and were given immediate feedback on their interviews. Students were expected to dress up and show up for their interview, and a completed resume was also expected to be presented. The virtual mock interviews encouraged students to be better prepared for virtual work interviews and work experiences.
OTC staff have facilitated multiple discussion classes on how to be prepared to work in a tele-working environment as a blind person. External professionals have frequently been invited as guest speakers, and discussion topics have included the use of assistive technology remotely, appropriate Zoom Etiquette, how to customize a resume to remote work applications, and job exploration in the tele-work environment.
A cautionary consideration is the heavy competition currently for remote opportunities. Data shows that there are 2.5 times more applicants than non-remote work opportunities. DSB participants who desire remote work need to especially hone their presentation and technical skills in order to compete within the current hot market.
SRC comment a.9
The SRC values addressing the “whole person” throughout the rehabilitation process. Are ALL disabilities being addressed? Is the updated priority of services checklist being used and has there been staff training on this tool? Are staff trained in updated medical and psychosocial aspects of disability? Increased outreach and input from other DSB staff and programs to learn more about disability limitations is recommended including rehab techs, OTC staff and BEP.
Agency response a.9
Identifying the range of disabilities has been an important emphasis for VR Counselors for some time. In order to have a successful outcome, our services cannot narrowly focus on the visual disability only, as individuals often experience other disabling conditions that can often be more impactful to getting and keeping a job than the visual disability they also experience. While we are a blind vocational rehabilitation agency, we are keenly aware that we address the entire person.
An updated priority of services checklist has been in use and continued training for staff has been provided for identifying the range of functional limitations and developing strategies for addressing all disabilities. New VRCs also receive training.
Staff are encouraged to refer participants to resources to coordinate, collaborate and assist in addressing other disabilities in tandem with adjustment to vision loss. VRCs are expected to gather medical documentation on all disabilities to ensure barriers are addressed. Addressing the whole person is a fundamental part of vocational counseling & guidance.
There is ongoing need for staff to receive training in updated medical and psychosocial aspects of disability.
SRC comment a. 10
The SRC is interested in knowing DSB’s consideration of changing demographics and serving younger participants. How is this being done? Does DSB consider generational differences with technology skills and preferences? Communication preferences, ex: texting? Is DSB capturing or missing data from younger participants? How does this impact overall satisfaction data and what changes can be made to modernize the survey tool?
Agency response a.10
The Youth Services team has been very responsive to the youth world, continually seeking ways to attract youth participation and have their voice heard on the youth’s terms.
Several years ago, program staff discovered that youth wouldn’t read agency-sent emails or voice mail, but they would more likely answer texts immediately, so the YSS staff adapted to that format. That began an awareness that traditional communication methods might need to be reconsidered. Many parents also will communicate by text only.
While there are some platforms that youth prefer, such as TikTok and SnapChat, there are limitations for the agency to pursue any preferred media format. The security of personally identifiable information and the ability to capture communications to meet state freedom of information act requirements limit choices. Some tools have discriminatory policies or lack the accessibility that disallow the agency to utilize the platforms. Some tools reportedly have policies that actively suppress videos featuring unattractive, disabled, or poor users, including content showing eye disorders. The agency has an obligation to understand the background of a tool, and the security issues, before implementing it as a means of communicating with students. The communication modes are in flux and ever-changing, and it is a challenge for the agency to follow all trends; still, YSS staff are tuned in to identify when old methods no longer work.
The YSS group have discovered that modern youth often expect some sort of reward for joining an activity, answering a survey, or being on a panel for a youth workshop. The program has provided gift cards as incentives in those situations.
As part of a virtual paid-work experience this past year, the program hired youth to create and edit a newsletter written by and for youth. This activity provides work experience and offers a forum for the voice of blind youth.
The YSS program actively seeks information from student participants in creating and refining programs. Before the virtual YSS activities this past summer, students were surveyed to identify topics of interest, preferred methods for interaction, and need for technology skills training in order to connect.
SRC comment a.11
Are individuals are graduating the OTC before they receive all the services they went to the OTC to gain? It is recommended there be consideration of “Recovery Services”, modeled after IEP services to make up for COVID-caused gaps in VR with three key questions: What level of service was expected prior to the pandemic? What was provided? What is the gap, and how do we fill that gap?
Agency response a.11
The agency has been in long conversation about gaps in training for students who attended the OTC during the pandemic. We have discussed the option of leaving openings for those who were discharged or graduated to come back and receive training in areas such as Orientation and Mobility and Home Economics— these are two classes where gaps might exist in training due to the virtual learning environment. Where it was feasible, a local Rehabilitation Teacher and Orientation & Mobility Specialist provided in-person training, but not as intensively as would occur in the OTC. Full services were provided in Braille, technology, and careers readiness during the pandemic, but gaps may exist in the other areas. We are working on creating a “Return to Service” model for the OTC for those who wish to return to complete services. This is a work in progress and will be addressed on an individual basis with students who wish to return for residential or commuter training.
SRC comment a.12
The SRC has concerns about the onboarding of DSB staff, especially with the influx of DSB staff members with general vocational rehabilitation background who do not have an extensive knowledge regarding the needs and capabilities of blind customers and the techniques necessary to work effectively with them. What do DSB staff receive for onboarding and training?
Agency Response a.12
The pace of staff retirements and resulting recruitment efforts for filling vacant positions has been staggering over the past three years, and in particular over the past year. The agency anticipated churn in staffing but not to the extent it has played out, which has perhaps been accelerated by the pandemic.
The agency’s second strategic goal and a sub-goal directly address the agency’s concern for the need to on-board new staff:
- Enhance and Maintain DSB Capacity & Expertise in Serving Blind Washington Residents
- Enhance awareness among all staff of agency mission and context, issues, & skills of blindness
In the past, DSB operated relied on oral history for conveying policy and procedures. We had been used to colleagues who had worked two or three decades with the agency, and knew what the processes were. Instead of updating written documentations, agency staff would connect with senior staff for oral guidance on how to do things. The connection of staff to the blind community was deep over time, so when the occasional new staff person arrived to the agency, cultural expectations, high expectations and deep belief in the capability of blind participants was observed and modeled among those with years of connection and experience.
The agency has realized that the traditional mode of learning through osmosis is no longer viable. There have been actions to address this new gap. In 2020, the Leadership Team, which is composed of all managers within the agency, addressed the topic of accessibility over the year. An Accessibility policy was drafted, tools and training for internal accessibility were explored, and supporting external partners in achieving accessible workplaces was a focus of activity. In 2021, the topic shifted to updating agency policies and procedures, and developing desk manuals to ensure work processes were documented, tested and able to be transferred to a new staff person. In 2022, the topic of DSB cultural values is planned to be the annual focus – what deeply held historical values does the agency want to continue and enhance, and what cultural values to add from the new dynamics and experiences of newer staff? How does the agency enhance the agency values of counselor judgment, customer focus, individualized services and integrated teaming? How do we build the deep belief and hold the highest expectations in the ability of blind individuals to achieve whatever they aspire to and have aptitude for?
One of the triumphs that developed for the 2020 Leadership Team focus on accessibility was a revamped New Employee Orientation training on accessibility, experiences and perspectives of blind individuals, and the adaptive tools and methods unique to visual disability. Even though it is part of training for new employees, the HR and Training Department rolled it out to all staff in this past year, so all staff had a shared experience. The goal is to develop on-going trainings for staff development focused on the issues of the community in which we work, and this provided a strong baseline for all staff.
The Orientation and Training Center has historically offered new staff a strong hands-on introduction to the adaptive skills of blindness and to the training center philosophy and methods. New hires who had no experience in the blindness field typically spent four days as a student, experiencing the training and interacting with agency participants. Because of the pandemic, this tool for providing on-boarding experiences has been truncated to four hours remote experience, but when feasible we will again expand the experiences for new staff. Regional Area Managers also organize job shadowing with peer staff and connect staff to a peer for individualized training and development in the knowledge and techniques necessary to work with low vision and blind, deaf-blind and deaf individuals. All staff are strongly encouraged to attend consumer group meetings, activities and state conventions. They also complete CEU courses around blindness, including the medical aspects of blindness. The Hadley School for the Blind courses are also a resource.
Because of how many new staff there are at DSB, this is an area for intensive focus over time.
SRC Comments a.13
The SRC remains concerned about the level and quality of Independent Living services available statewide. More qualified staff are needed statewide, not just in Seattle. What is DSB’s plan to address this need. The SRC appreciates the work DSB has done to provide IL customers with technology.
Agency Response a.13
The agency has considered deeply this past year the challenges of maintaining the IL Program quality services in face of a dwindling supply of vendor resources. We have tried to be creative in our response to the challenges facing the program. DSB and the UW have worked well together, connecting at least monthly to review progress, fiscal issues and brainstorm ways to strengthen service provision. Below are some detailed description of ideas, plans and actions we have in play to address the issue of qualified IL vendor availability statewide.
- Create a professional development “New Provider” training program by utilizing the Vocational Rehabilitation Program pipeline of potential and interested participants. Develop training program similar to a Participant to Provider concept. This would allow for those external interested individuals that have skills and experience but not quite at IL Program required level to participate in the professional development training to become qualified vendors. This may increase the supply of IL Program qualified vendors in more remote areas across the state depending on location of participant. In implementing this idea, the IL Program plans to solicit input form DSB VR, the SRC and current vendors for their ideas on development and structure of such a training program.
- Create a new vendor “Boot Camp”, for those vendors that meet most qualifications but just need tuning up in areas or require more knowledge in DSB IL processes and expectations.
- Redefine IL Program required and desired qualifications for a provider. Currently the program is utilizing a narrowly defined “rehab teacher” job specification. Broaden and expand what is desired and minimal qualifications. The IL Program is seeking input from DSB, UW, and SRC for suggested minimum qualifications.
- Explore possible OTA/OT staff that work in other fields to increase our resources. This has been helpful with the current support provided by the Lighthouse for the Blind. These individuals can attend the professional development training or a “Provider Onboarding Bootcamp” in order to bridge any gaps on fundamentals of IL provision.
- Focus more on specialization for a vendor to be able to travel throughout state or area, and broaden limiting just one vendor per territory. The IL Program has had success with O&M and specialized AT needs and expansion of this model can supplement existing service provision.
- Utilize the additional state funds that have been received to provide an increase in vendor rate. We are considering implementation of an hourly increase to vendor service provision rates. This would allow vendors that require accommodation, such as a reader/driver, to hire this service and expand their availability.
- Continue to pay for travel reimbursement; to include travel time and mileage
- Pay half (.5) of hourly rate for documentation/reporting/equipment setup indirect time
The IL Program is eager for SRC input on how to expand our reach and continue to provide quality IL services statewide.
SRC Comments a.14
When was the most recent strategic plan rewrite? 2013/2014? When does DSB plan to write the next strategic plan? Will DSB seek contributions from those other than DSB staff, including the SRC-B?
Agency Response a.14
The most recent agency Strategic Plan was revised in 2020, based largely on staff survey information gathered in 2019. The strategic goals were not radically altered in this process, as many of the previous goals for improvement were in process and still relevant for the agency.
The previous strategic plan process in 2015 had included active SRC participation in the staff activities towards developing the strategic plan. The 2019 process was done in conjunction with an all-staff agency training, and funding for the event was limited to the staff being trained in the new data management system. Circumstances made it a more insular process than desired. Information and request for input around the revisions for the strategic plan was provided at an SRC meeting, but the agency’s preference would be to fold in SRC input at the earliest stages, and we will work towards that end when revising again for 2024.
SRC Comment a.15
Has DSB considered developing a social worker or mental health professional position within the OTC to address emotional issues, transportation and housing concerns, etc.? If developed, these services could be available to all DSB participants.
Agency Response a.15
Challenges in the consideration of adding staff positions include the assurance of on-going funding, the limits on the number of staff (full time equivalency, or FTE) allowed to the agency by the legislature, and the balance between mandated areas of expansion versus desired areas of expansion.
The agency has been cautious about expanding FTEs in the past few years because of uncertain funding, the Order of Selection waitlist limitations, and most recently the pandemic. In the moment, the agency’s fiscal situation appears stronger than it has in the recent past, but the agency remains cautious as past performance data has been impacted by a series of external factors and is therefore not highly reliable for future forecasting. That means, in relation to the question posed, that the agency remains cautious about adding new internal positions that may currently be accessed through external vendors or other means.
The agency has relied on contracted service providers and external mental health counseling to meet the needs of residential students. The separation from natural networks of support, and the challenges of facing the adjustment to disability in an intensive, daily manner can create an atmosphere where emotional and mental health is strained. It is common for VR to support on-going mental health counseling services for individuals who attend the OTC. Currently, we have access to resources in the community that meet urgent needs of residential students.
The new OTC Program Manager is very interested in providing an opportunity for an on-site mental health professional for the OTC. More discussion will be needed to identify the key aspects around internal mental health provision that the program and agency might benefit from far into the future. For example, the need may not be to bring in a traditional mental health counselor who provides counseling sessions to students, especially if those services are available more naturally in the community. However, the agency may benefit from an internal source for coaching or training on how to address the daily mental health issues that arise, and develop and practice strategies for coping and adjustment. It may be that some of the softer skills that business is seeking from its workforce, such as problem solving, direct communication strategies, and collaboration skills, might be folded into such a position’s work tasks. Some life skills, such as problem solving transportation or housing issues, might also be incorporated.
This type of position is high on the agency’s (long) wish list for added positions, and we will keep the SRC in the loop on the progression of our thinking.
SRC Comment a.16
How can DSB better utilize Rehab Techs to support DSB participants with understanding and accessing Work Source services?
Agency Response a.16
At the agency, part of the Rehabilitation Technician’s job tasks are to provide direct services to agency participants, which often include providing initial vocational assessment and connection to external community resources. As part of their work tasks, the Rehab Techs could be utilized to support participants in accessing the WorkSource resources, but other aspects need to be considered before engaging in this fashion.
With a new Business Relations Manager hired as of October 2021, the agency is engaging in extensive planning on how best to strategically utilize WorkSource services and resources.
As part of the Workforce Development System, DSB staff have provided detailed assessment of accessibility issues for many local Workforce Development Centers. Often public transportation and ease of access to get to and navigate within the centers have discouraged participants from utilizing the centers as a resource.
During the pandemic, the centers have offered remote access only, and frequently participants have experienced challenges with accessing the electronic portals for services.
VRCs need to be informed about the range of services available through the WorkSource centers, and need to develop relationship with WorkSource staff to be able to connect participants with the public supports, veterans benefits, job readiness/job finding, and business-driven training services that a participant may be eligible for. The VRC is key to identifying how a participant might make use of the local WorkSource, and a Rehabilitation Technician can support that plan through working directly with the participant.