Guest: Dennis Martinez
Duration: 28 minutes
Published: August 29, 2021
Host: Welcome to Independent Perspective In-Depth, a program presented in the public interest by Western New York Independent Living (WNYIL) Family of Agencies, courtesy of the Niagara Frontier Radio Reading Service (NFRRS). Using this long format, we will be exploring the broader issues affecting the community of people with disabilities in discussions with knowledgeable individuals from a variety of organizations and backgrounds.
We are delighted to have as our guest for today, Dennis Martinez, Regional Workforce Development and Business Relations Coordinator of the Buffalo District Office of ACCES-VR. We are your hosts Jillian Moss Smith and Ernest Churchwell, welcome to the program, Dennis.
Guest: Thank you. Glad to be here.
Host: Well, as the nation is at least somewhat starting to come back from the restrictions of the COVID-19 pandemic, many businesses are finding it a challenge to get enough workers. This could be a great opportunity for job seekers with disabilities who may have had a rough time under most circumstances pre pandemic, they should look to ACCES-VR for help. What does the acronym ACCES-VR stand for?
Guest: ACCES stands for Adult Career and Continuing Educational Services. VR stands for the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation.
Host: Awesome, thank you. And for those who have been involved in assisting people with disabilities in seeking employment for many years know the abbreviations OVR and VESID. What were they and how are they connected to ACCES-VR?
Guest: OVR and VESID are the previous acronyms for what is now called ACCES-VR. The agency and its services have remained the same over the years, however the name has changed. We are an agency within the New York State Education Department.
Host: Okay, well, just in case people were curious, when I'm interviewing people on our five-minute weekly show, I always go out of my way to explain acronyms and just so their questions are answered, OVR is Office of Vocational Rehabilitation, and VESID is Vocational and Educational Services for Individuals with Disabilities. Now people can breathe easy.
Finding gainful employment continues to be a challenge for job seekers with disabilities. About four months ago the US Department of Labor noted that unemployment rates had increased during the COVID-19 shutdowns rising to 7.9% for non-disabled persons but a higher 12.6% for individuals with disabilities, which doesn't sound that bad until you remember that these figures only reflect those who are actively seeking work. The same report notes that only 17.9% of Americans with disabilities have any employment, what populations does ACCES-VR serve?
Guest: ACCES-VR services all types of disabilities. We work with individuals with physical and or mental impairments that are a substantial impediment to employment. The Commission for the Blind serves individuals who meet the criteria for legal blindness. If a person applied who has a visual impairment, constituting legal blindness, we work with the Commission to assess who is the most appropriate agency to meet the needs of that applicant so if somebody comes to us and they have a visual impairment that may or may not constitute legal blindness, we'll work with the Commission. The Commission, I would suggest if you have a visual impairment and the Commission takes over your case, you have a much more comprehensive type of program that serves people with visual impairments, they're the experts in that field. We serve all the other disabilities very well, but legal blindness and visual impairments are not our forte.
Host: That will give us a context for your descriptions of programs. What does ACCES-VR consider its mission?
Guest: I will read you the mission right off the website. ACCES-VR’s mission is to assist individuals with disabilities to achieve and maintain employment and to support independent living through training, education, rehabilitation, and career development.
Host: Wonderful. Now this may take somewhat longer time to answer but thanks to us having a long format, you've got the time. What services to people with disabilities does ACCES-VR offer?
Guest: Well you know there are so many services to mention. Let's start with the vocational rehabilitation counselor. A vocational rehabilitation counselor a VR counselor is available to assist you with developing your plan to reach your employment goal. Each goal is very individualized. Through this collaboration effort, your counselor can help identify the appropriate services available to reach that goal. This experience is individualized as I said and will be as unique as the individual who applies for our services. Our counselors are trained to work in the field of VR, and to provide vocational counseling and guidance. Some people may need assessments and evaluations to develop viable work goals, a lot of folks come to us and they have really don't have an idea what they want to be, what they want to do, what occupation they think they might be good in. Some may need to have a trial work experience to identify the appropriate supports, such as a job coach. A person with a physical disability may benefit from rehab technology. Some of our services are based upon financial need, and some are not. We can explore financial eligibility and if the person qualifies for assistance with the cost of vocational training, or continued education. We use job developers to help our participants secure employment and job placement is a service that is not contingent upon economic need. So, anyone who comes to us, we just want job development services regardless of your income and resources we can help with that. There are also some accessibility supports that we may be able to assist with during training, or at a worksite. We have work incentives for employers to receive when hiring our participants. We have many services that we can offer based upon the needs of the individual, and it's all very individualized.
Host: Awesome, thank you. And does ACCES-VR just serve consumers in Western New York and if not, how many offices are there throughout the Empire State?
Guest: ACCES-VR serves participants throughout New York State, there are 15 ACCES-VR district offices, the Buffalo District Office is the largest. Vocational rehabilitation is a federally mandated program, there is a VR program in every state in the United States. If a New York resident were to move to another state, they could seek VR services in that state and we could help them connect with the appropriate agents in any state because we have lists of those different programs, none of which have an interesting name like ours. Some of them are still called OVR and we could connect them with the appropriate person to apply.
Host: You know I was particularly impressed when you said that Western New York is the largest ACCES-VR office considering New York State also includes the Big Apple and those five boroughs and whatnot so I guess there must be a lot of people needing your services in our region.
Guest: I think it's because New York City is divided up, each borough has an office. There is an office in Manhattan, we have one in Queens, we have one in Brooklyn, we have one in the Bronx. So those are divided up, it's not just one big office covering the whole city. So, I think that's probably why Buffalo is the biggest being the second largest city in the state. At any one time we serve our open caseloads about 4,000 people in various stages of the program so yes, we are a big office, we serve eight counties in Western New York.
Host: Terrific. It strikes me your title, Regional Workforce Development and Business Relations Coordinator suggests that you have a mandate to work with employers, as well as individual consumers with disabilities. Just what are your responsibilities?
Guest: Well, I really don't work with individuals with disabilities as a counselor on the caseload. I work to develop relationships with businesses, and our workforce development partner organizations, and they do this to enhance employment opportunities for persons with disabilities under the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, or WIOA for short. ACCES-VR is a partner with the New York State Department of Labor and the career centers and others to create a workforce that meets present and future needs of businesses in this region and the region that I cover is Buffalo and Rochester.
Host: I'd love to know what past experiences helped prepare you for this role?
Guest: Well I've been in the VR field for a long time. We won't say how long but long enough, and most of it was in relation to job placement for people with disabilities. Immediately before I joined ACCES-VR or VESID as it was called at the time, I managed a large Supportive Employment Program for a local agency. There was a great deal of misinformation and stigma about people with disabilities and employment at the time. I encountered this no matter how I tried to present people with disabilities were looking for employment. And it was around the same time that the ADA became law, and I thought wow, this would change things, and it has somewhat over the years but we still have a long way to go, people with disabilities still have a much higher unemployment rate than the general population and the pandemic certainly does not help that.
Host: And as part of my continuing effort to make sure our listeners know what all the abbreviations mean of course ADA is the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, but for the sake of our listeners who have just joined our program, you're listening to Independent Perspective In-Depth, a program presented in the public interest by WNYIL. Our guest is Dennis Martinez, Regional Workforce Development and Business Relations Coordinator of the Buffalo District Office of ACCES-VR. We’ll continue exploring the crucial work of this state agency.
Now does ACCES-VR have an orientation recording available through your website to explain your procedures?
Guest: Yes, we have both recorded orientations, and in person orientation sessions. The name of our website is www.acces.nysed.gov/vr. On our website you will find two videos that will assist you in applying for services. The first video is an overview of ACCES-VR services, and the second video explains how to apply for these services. We also contract vendors for either in person orientation sessions for people interested in applying for our services.
Host: This was an issue that came up a lot during the pandemic as people from federal, state and local governments were making pronouncements that were televised. Do you provide accommodations on your recordings for participants who are deaf?
Guest: The videos do include a sign language interpreter to translate the video content. If a person who is deaf would like an in-person orientation, we can coordinate an interpreter for that individual as well.
Host: Awesome. Now whether their goals are higher education, vocational training or progressing directly to the workforce, students with disabilities are likely to need assistance with the transition. How can ACCES-VR assist them?
Guest: Each applicant is assigned to a vocational rehabilitation counselor, that counselor will work in collaboration with the individual to develop an individual plan for employment. That plan will be uniquely developed to meet the needs of that individual. Individual interests and abilities are assessed to assist an individual, identify a viable vocational goal. The vocational goal drives the plan, services needed to obtain the vocational goal are identified.
Host: And the thought occurs to us that helping prepare individuals with disabilities for employment, starts long before they leave schooling. In some of these processes is ACCES-VR fulfilling the state's obligations under the federal Individual with Disabilities Education Act or IDEA?
Guest: Yes, there's a joint agreement for the coordination of transition services between New York State Education Department (NYSED), if you like acronyms, adult career and continuing education services for vocational rehabilitation (ACCES-VR), and the Office of Special Education (OSC). This does sound like alphabet soup, doesn't it. This agreement reflects federal requirements of Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and you just said that was IDEA and now it's the one that really, I liked because it actually means something, and the Title IV, it sounds like you're getting intravenous feeding, title four of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, or as we like to call it the Rehabilitation Act as amended by the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act which I mentioned a couple minutes ago which is called WIOA, and provides an overview of the purposes, objectives, and joint responsibilities of each party in the provision of transition services for students with disabilities, as well as pre employment transition services for students with disabilities. ACCES-VR and OSC, remember OSC is the Office of Special Education, share a responsibility to prepare students with disabilities for successful competitive integrated employment. The purpose of this agreement is to facilitate and foster a common understanding of transition requirements and responsibilities, and to build a partnership between ACCES-VR and OSC in order to enable students with disabilities who are eligible, or potentially eligible for vocational rehabilitation or VR services and to successfully transition from school to post school activities, including the receipt of pre employment transition services, transition services, and other kinds of services. So, I know it was a lot of words, but that's it.
Host: Now are some programs such as youth employment services or pre employment transit service transition services likely to start long before the student is approaching school graduation?
Guest: Yes, the use of our pre employment transition services for students who apply for ACCES-VR while they're still in high school. We also provide pre employment transition services to the potentially eligible. Those who do not apply for ACCES-VR services through the use of potentially eligible vendor on contract, we can serve youth starting as young as 14 to start exploring work and career goals, I believe that's called pre ATS. We like to at least begin receiving referrals at the beginning of the 11th grade. We will work in collaboration with the high school, to develop post-graduation plans. We can offer experimental and discovery opportunities for students, designed to engage them and assist them in developing a better understanding of themselves, their strengths, their interest and their abilities, self-knowledge that allows students to successfully engage in their own post-secondary transition and vocational services.
Host: And the question comes to mind, do you work with other stakeholders and entities to accomplish these goals?
Guest: Yes, the ones that were mentioned in the printed question were former acronyms, now seems to be, it was SCQA, which I've never heard of, RSETAC was mentioned and none of these apparently are current. Now the Office of Special Education or OSEP educational partnership is coordinated and cohesive network of support focused entities that are focused on enhancing services and support for students with disabilities. That's from early childhood and school age education through engagement and post school opportunities. The OSEP educational partnership includes five technical assistance partnerships at institutes of higher education, and regional teams, located in each region of the state. At the local level we collaborate with the Western Region Partnership Center, which I believe is located at BOCES. And the main person in that organization is Susan Locke-Scott.
Host: Great. As New York State keeps modifying the details of its pandemic restrictions, we need to ask are ACCES-VR counselors meeting in person with it to consumers and if not, do you know when they will?
Guest: Well at this time we are. ACCES-VR counselors can meet with individuals in person, by appointment only. We're trying to be safe during this difficult time, but we realize that people do need to meet in person, and we have recently opened this up. It’s appointment only, and at the request of the individual.
Host: The big question on many people's minds, how does one go about getting services from ACCES-VR?
Guest: Well, we encourage people to complete an application to start services. You can call our local Buffalo office at the phone number 716-848-8001 and ask for assistance. You can also explore our website, again at www.access.nysed.gov/vr
Host: Once someone is registered to receive services, do they remain active with ACCES-VR forever?
Guest: Okay once a person is placed in the job, which is you know our goal, our goal is employment. We typically keep the case open for a minimum of 90 days, that's three months. And at that point we assess if the job is successful, or if there are more services that are needed. If no more services are needed. We look to close the case as a successful rehabilitation. But if in the future that same person is in need of our services again, they can apply again at any time, we always say that our door is always open.
Host: When a consumer is applying to potential employers to be hired and if their impairment is not immediately obvious, such as learning disabilities or whatnot, is it legal for an interviewer to ask an applicant, if they have a disability?
Guest: Well, under the ADA or the Americans with Disabilities Act, an employer cannot ask if an applicant has a disability, but an employer can ask if an applicant can do the job. The employer must describe what the job duties are and then ask the applicant if they can do that job. The applicant should answer this question honestly, taking into account a possible reasonable accommodation. Let's give an example here. Let's say there's someone named Martha. Martha has lifting restrictions, she can't lift or carry heavy objects for long distances, and the job requires Martha to carry a heavy object or several heavy objects from room to room in an office. Can Martha do this job? Well, Martha could use a wheeled cart as an accommodation. So, Martha can say yes, she can do that job. So, it's can you do this job, with or without a reasonable accommodation, and that is the question and the answer is yes, Martha can do that job with a reasonable accommodation. But it's important to remember here that employers should always be consistent in using the same questions with all applicants during an interview. So, if they ask someone who they suspect may have a disability if they can do the job, they have to ask everybody the same way. This job requires this, that and the other thing and can you do it. Not to single people out. That's the bottom line.
Host: Even in this period of some companies needing more workers than are coming through the door, it doesn't hurt for an applicant with a disability to have a bit of an edge. Are there financial incentives or other supports available to employees who hire a person receiving services from ACCES-VR?
Guest: True, there are. The primary focus of our program is to make sure that the individual whom we help remove those barriers to employment imposed by their disability is the best person for the job. However, you're right, sometimes an edge is important. There are different kinds of financial incentives for businesses that are interested in hiring people with disabilities. For profit making companies there are federal and New York State tax credits that could save a business up to $4,500 in corporate income taxes. The Work Opportunity Tax Credit or WOTC is a federal tax credit that saves employers up to $2,400 during the first year of employment, and the New York State tax credit for the second year, that's called Workers with Disabilities Tax Credit can save up to $2,100. Then there are wage reimbursement programs, on the job training, that will reimburse an employer for 100% of wages paid up to six months, provided that employer trains that individual to do a specific job, and the training has to be above and beyond what they would normally do with any new employee. The Work Try Out program is similar, and it focuses on trying a job, it will reimburse an employer 100% of wages during an assessment period of up to three months. So, all those incentives can be used together, and they can be used I believe with all types of integrated employment models, including supported employment.
Host: Although we did have some other questions in mind, such as your special events in October for National Disability Employment Awareness Month and whatnot, we only have a couple of minutes left in the program. And I'm sure that some listeners are bound to have questions and areas that we have not covered. What is the phone number and address of the local office?
Guest: Our local district offices telephone number is 716-848-8001. We're located at 508 Main Street in downtown Buffalo.
Host: Awesome, Dennis thanks so much for taking the time to be our guest and explain your programs.
Guest: Thank you. You're very welcome. Glad to do it.
Host: You've been listening to Independent Perspective In-Depth, a program presented in the public interest by the WNYIL family of agencies, courtesy of the NFRRS. Our guest was Dennis Martinez, Regional Workforce Development and Business Relations Coordinator, Buffalo District Office of ACESS-VR.
This program features a song A Little Ditty on the Dance floor by Jay Lang available under Creative Commons Attribution noncommercial license. We've been your hosts Jillian Moss Smith and Ernest Churchwell. If you wish to hear this program again, a couple days after the on air broadcast, you can find a podcast on the NFRRS web page nfradioreading.org on the Programming Tab under Bonus Programs, and also on wnyil.org under Public Relations/Podcasts. Have a good week and be safe.