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Disability Groups Fear Proposal Could Privatize Vocational Rehab

APD Director Barbara Palmer (in gray) with supporters during Developmental Disabilities Awareness Day at the Capitol
Sascha Cordner
APD Director Barbara Palmer (in gray) with supporters during Developmental Disabilities Awareness Day at the Capitol
APD Director Barbara Palmer (in gray) with supporters during Developmental Disabilities Awareness Day at the Capitol
Credit Sascha Cordner / WFSU News
APD Director Barbara Palmer (in gray) with supporters during Developmental Disabilities Awareness Day at the Capitol

Florida House and Senate Leaders have boasted about an ambitious agenda to improve the experiences of persons with disabilities. But some disability rights groups fear a proposal in the legislature filed by two powerful lawmakers, could privatize one of the important job placement programs that people with ‘unique abilities’ rely upon.

The state has its sights set on the division of vocational rehabilitation, which helps people with physical or mental disabilities get and keep jobs. There’s a plan to bring some changes to vocational rehab. But few lawmakers know about it.

"I’m not aware of it," said Rep. Alan Williams (D-Tallahassee), during a rally for persons with disabilities at the Capitol. He says its the first time he's heard about the proposal.

“As we look at how we fund voc rehab, or if there’s any restructuring, let’s make sure any services they’re currently providing, we don’t lose those. And we do everything we can to enhance those. The people out here for Disability Awareness Advocacy Day, it’s just a testament to why our state needs to do more.”

But, not everyone is in the dark. Agency for Persons with Disabilities Secretary Barbara Palmer is aware of the measure and says she thinks it’s an effort to improve the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation. Palmer says the division has big challenges ahead of it.

“The federal government just sent down an edict that everyone, especially those with severe disabilities, have to go through voc rehab before they get any other services," she says. "So, we are working with them so that we can help on the front end, but on the other end, after they’ve gone through training, if they need follow-up services, we can help them there.”

Others aren't quite as sure of the bill's intent, or the reason for it.

“I’m not sure what prompted the bill. If they [lawmakers] didn’t believe the outcomes from voc rehab are what they think they should be," says ARC of Florida Executive Director Deborah Linton.

Some disability advocates say they’ve been blindsided by the proposal. Its Senate sponsor is former Senate President Don Gaetz, its House sponsor is Representative and Republican Party of Florida Chairman Blaise Ingoglia. John Pribanic with the Florida Rehabilitation Council, views the proposal as well-intentioned, but problematic.

“Unfortunately, I think a repeal of VR is absolutely an extreme, an extreme measure.” 

The bill creates a sunset date for vocational rehab and requires the agency create a pilot partnership program with local organizations. But the big fear is that the language is a forerunner to privatization. But Gaetz says contrary to those rumors, the program is not being privatized, nor is it being cut.

“We want to make sure there are measurable performance metrics in promoting mobility and functionality, independence when possible, employment where it’s feasible and make sure our program in Florida gets better and better and becomes one of the best in the county," he says.

Both Gaetz and Senate President Andy Gardiner are big proponents of improving the economic and educational outlook of people with “unique abilities.” Gaetz’s wife is partially disabled and uses a wheelchair. Gardiner’s son has Down Syndrome.

“It’s a flag, motherhood and God bill. I can’t imagine why anyone would be opposed to it, unless they think their personal rice bowl is being chipped," Gaetz says.

Despite his reassurances, fears of privatization abound. The last time the state tried to privatize the program, it put Florida at risk of losing that money.

In 1999, the Florida legislature privatized vocational rehab. But according to a 2003 study by the Office of Program Policy and Analysis, the program was poorly run, and the federal government labeled Florida as a “high-risk” state. In 2002, lawmakers reversed course, and moved vocational rehabilitation under the Florida Department of Education. The Rehab Council’s Pribanic and the ARC’s Linton suggest vocational rehab should be moved under the state jobs department—the Department of Economic Opportunity, to help it better meet its mission.  

Gaetz says he’s heard that recommendation before, but , “I’m more interested, and so is President Gardiner, in deploying all the resources of state government, educational institutions and anyone else who can add value, to help these folks do better and have more opportunities.” 

A Senate Committee will hear SB 802on Tuesday.

Copyright 2020 WFSU. To see more, visit WFSU.

Lynn Hatter is a Florida A&M University graduate with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Lynn has served as reporter/producer for WFSU since 2007 with education and health care issues as her key coverage areas. She is an award-winning member of the Capital Press Corps and has participated in the NPR Kaiser Health News Reporting Partnership and NPR Education Initiative. When she’s not working, Lynn spends her time watching sci-fi and action movies, writing her own books, going on long walks through the woods, traveling and exploring antique stores. Follow Lynn Hatter on Twitter: @HatterLynn.