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  • By Mar-Vic Cagurangan

Overworked, understaffed agency hampers services for people with disabilities

Photo from DISID website

More than 50 percent of people with disabilities who were found eligible for services on Guam left the Vocational Rehabilitation empty-handed in 2014. Among all states and territories, Guam ranked fourth in the “eligible but got nothing category,” according to the U.S. Rehabilitation Services Administration.

In fiscal 2013-2014, at least 74 individuals were determined to be “ready for employment.” Only 28 have actually landed fulltime jobs. There were 18 cases that closed without employment outcomes and nine cases closed without services provided.

“I'm sure it doesn't come as a surprise to you that there are many DVR clients who have expressed their dissatisfaction with their VR services,” said Lourdes Mesa, whose son Clinton, 25, has autism. “Clinton and I have had our share of challenges and we currently are in due process.”

But the ostensibly low level of success in service provision cannot be attributed to lack of funds. On the contrary, federal funds were available but, at certain period, they were never used. Between 2010 and 2013, Guam relinquished $2.88 million in federal grants allotted for programs and services for individuals with disabilities due to the DVR’s inability to expend the funds.

While the situation frustrates clients, the sentiment is shared by VR counselors, said Benito Servino, director of the Department of Individuals with Disabilities. “The challenges faced by many VR agencies is that their staff have overwhelming caseloads,” he said.

The recommended caseload per VR counselor is between 80 and 100. On Guam, Servino said, each counselor handles an average of 100 to 120 clients.

The weight of the caseload is shared by Edmund Cruz, the lone advocate at the Client Assistance Program, a federal program established to help individuals with disabilities navigate the available services and benefits under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 “For a small grant, I should have a lower caseload. But this year, I am up to 60 clients,” Cruz said. “One of the blind clients that I have who recently transferred from Hawaii to Guam told me that clients rarely go to Hawaii CAP because services are provided without delays. But here on Guam, it seems that with routine and minor issues they want a CAP advocate to be there but that is not a

problem with me and it depends on my schedule.”

Servino said his department is trying to recruit more VR counselors to meet the demands of students with disabilities who are transitioning to adulthood. “There are challenges in recruiting counselors, supervisors and administrators due to the requirements for MS degree and CRC certifications,” Servino said. “I have two staff members who have already completed their MS degree. One has a CRC and the other will be taking the exam soon.”

The difficulty in staff recruitment is compounded by the challenge of retention. “How many VR counselors have moved on to better high-paying jobs and most of the difficult cases were left to the hands of a senior counselor?” Cruz asked.

The Guam disabled community has tried to get CAP to seek legal intervention to push for changes. “However our state assurances with Rehabilitation Service Association prohibits the Client Assistance Program to initiate a lawsuit.”

Disputes between a client and the DVR are resolved through systemic and individual advocacy using administrative review, mediation, and impartial hearings. “I hope that things will change before I decide to retire,” Cruz said.

Kasinda Ludwig, vocational rehabilitation administrator, said one of the areas that need improvement is the transition of students with disabilities from high school to either post-secondary education or workforce. “Guam DVR is looking forward to the creation of employment goals for clients to include self-employment, improving supported employment and more community rehabilitation program,” Ludwig stated in the State Rehabilitation Council’s 2014 report.

For both the clients and counselors, the challenges continue after high school. One of the obstacles has to do with identifying community rehabilitation providers; and two, finding a sufficient number of employers who will be willing to give people with disabilities a chance to work.

Flame Tree Freedom Center is a nonprofit group, which— through a partnership with DVR — develops ways to prepare these young people for the work force. Eddy and Dawn Reyes founded Flame Tree in 2009, with the goal to “crumble all barriers” for those with challenging conditions, by identifying their strengths, providing them job training that matches their skill sets and ultimately getting them hired.

There are currently 25 local companies and organizations that provide training grounds for DVR’s young clients. Employment outcomes, however, leave much to be desired.

Coinciding with the National Disability Employment Awareness Month— themed “Inclusion Works” — stakeholders of the disability community held a conference at Nikko Hotel on Oct. 13 to identify ways to increase disability employment rate.

“We are exploring many options such as offering tax credits to employers who will hire individuals with disabilities,” Servino said. “We also try to educate the business community about the benefits of hiring individuals with disabilities. Many of them are good workers.”

Mesa, on the other hand, said DVR needs to shift gears. “Focus shouldn't only be on job readiness but on job matching. It's important to find the right job environment that meets that individual's current interests, strengths and abilities and then to provide the supports that are needed,” she said. “We shouldn't be just trying to get them any job and then forget about them.”

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