Order of Selection: How Vocational Rehabilitation Agencies Prioritize Service to Individuals with Disabilities 

By Anna Lucchese, Policy Fellow

State Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) agencies assist individuals with disabilities to prepare for, secure, retain, advance in, or regain employment that is consistent with the individual’s unique strengths, abilities, interests, and informed choice. Due to limited funding, State VR agencies do not always have the capacity to serve everyone eligible for VR services. Order of Selection (OOS) was therefore included in Title I of The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 to prioritize individuals already receiving assistance from these agencies. OOS requires that during times when resources are scarce, VR agencies must create “the order to be followed in selecting eligible individuals to be provided vocational rehabilitation services.” As of April 2022, there are 41 VR agencies that use the OOS system and 37 VR agencies that do not.

The U.S. Rehabilitation Services Administration has established general policies governing OOS [34 Code of Federal Regulations 361.36]. If the State VR agency is unable to provide the full range of VR services to all eligible individuals who apply for services, it must: 

  • Show the order to be followed; 
  • Provide justification for the order; and 
  • Assure that individuals with the most significant disabilities will be selected first. 

In addition, State VR agencies are required to provide access to services provided through a mandatory information and referral system. [34 Code of Federal Regulations 361.36(a)(3)(iv)(B) and 361.37] This policy enables candidates for services to be proactive while they wait for VR services and potentially secure employment in the interim. A VR agency also must refer the candidate to other agencies within the state’s workforce development system (e.g., job centers) that may have the capacity to help them while they are on the waiting list. As a result, these options may help reduce the number of eligible individuals waiting to be provided support and free up resources within VR agencies.  [See, for example, the regulations implementing the Missouri Information and Referral system.] 

Consistent with these general policies, each state may establish its own policies implementing OOS. For example, in Kentucky, there are five priority categories based on an individual’s functional capacity. Functional capacity refers to a person’s ability to perform employment-related tasks, which includes mobility, communication, self-care, self-direction, interpersonal skills, work tolerance and work skills. In Washington, the OOS system categorizes candidates as either open or closed based on the severity of the individual’s disability and the number of functional limitations. Candidates within the open category can access the full range of services at the agency. Candidates in the closed category are placed on a statewide waitlist and may be served once resources become more available.  

While the purpose of OOS is to prioritize services to individuals with the most significant disabilities, some have argued this may deter these less significant cases from receiving assistance. To remedy this, some states still work to serve individuals who have been placed on the waiting list in a more limited capacity. For example, Missouri ensures all eligible individuals, regardless of their OOS status, will have access to accurate information and referral systems offered by VR agencies. This method makes it possible for candidates to be proactive while they wait for additional services and potentially secure employment before, they become eligible for more personalized resources. A VR agency also can refer the candidate to other agencies that may have more capacity to help them while they are on the waiting list. As a result, these options may help reduce the number of eligible individuals waiting to be provided support and free up resources within VR agencies.   

Another proposed solution is increasing funding for VR programs to provide additional staffing and resources. Since only a small portion of the millions of individuals with disabilities are eligible for services, advocates have suggested there needs to be more investment in these facilities so qualified candidates will receive sufficient support. States have addressed this concern in recent years by increasing funding for VR agencies. For example, Georgia has increased funding for VR agencies to help individuals with disabilities “achieve independence and meaningful employment.” An increase in access to more resources will likely lead to fewer individuals having to wait for services and instead be placed on a more efficient pathway to achieving their employment goals.