In his 11 years as a rehabilitation counselor, Manuel Colorado III has provided amputees with almost every type of assistance you can name.
“Vocational rehabilitation is basically about getting people with disabilities into some type of competitive employment,” says Colorado. “The funding is there to help people with whatever service they need to get back to work or stay in their job. We’re talking about wheelchairs, prosthetics, computers, anything you can think of. If the job requires it, we can get it. We try to be the hub for all of that person’s disability needs.”
If you’re surprised to hear that, you’re not alone. Federally funded Vocational Rehabilitation agencies (commonly known as Voc Rehab for short) reach only a fraction of the amputees who are eligible for benefits. That’s often because people mistakenly believe Voc Rehab’s services are narrowly focused on career counseling and job training.
You can certainly get that type of support through Voc Rehab, but the program offers a much broader, more holistic suite of services. Its mandate covers every aspect of your life that might affect employment, including healthcare, mobility, technology, mental health, and more.
“I’ve served hundreds of amputees, and we can provide any service that’s related to getting a person job-ready,” Colorado says. “Sometimes people already have job skills when they come to us, but they need ancillary services to help them get a job and keep that job. And some people have skills they’ve acquired over the years that don’t transfer because of limb loss. We help them identify other ways they can get back to work. There’s an occupation for every type of person out there.”
Each state has its own Voc Rehab program, so procedures vary from one state to the next. But no matter where you live, there’s a good chance your local agency can help you address a challenge that’s related to work, and simultaneously improve your overall quality of life.
Here are some of the benefits most amputees don’t realize they can receive from Voc Rehab programs.
Prosthetic devices and wheelchairs rank among the most underutilized benefits that Voc Rehab can provide to amputees. “If you’re an electrician who climbs utility poles, you’re going to need the best prosthetic out there,” Colorado explains. “As long as we can justify that you need the prosthetic for your occupation, Voc Rehab can pay for whatever your insurance doesn’t cover.” The same principle applies for wheelchairs, crutches, vehicle modifications, and other job-related mobility expenses.
Getting back to work often requires more physical rehabilitation than insurance will cover. Voc Rehab can make up the difference, Colorado says. The same goes for consultations related to pain management, gait training, diet, wound care, skin care, and other health services that amputees commonly need. “We even pay for surgeries,” Colorado says. “If it’s clearly justified that your disability is causing an issue that has to be corrected surgically for you to keep working, we can absolutely cover that.”
Mental Health Support
Depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress, and similar issues pose some of the biggest challenges for amputees seeking to return to work. “Everyone has their own grieving process,” says Colorado. “We offer individual counseling, we can refer people to outside agencies, we can send them to a doctor for prescription medicines—whatever is going to help that person be mentally prepared for the workforce.”
Midlife career change is disruptive, but Colorado says it can also be an opportunity for renewal. “So often we get pulled into occupations that aren’t what we really want to do,” Colorado says. Voc Rehab counselors are trained to help clients identify careers that will provide fulfillment along with a paycheck. “I’ve worked with people who were able to follow their passion because they acquired a disability,” he says.
How to Connect With Voc Rehab
All the state-level Voc Rehab programs are funded in part by the federal Rehabilitation Services Administration. To find contact information for your state’s program, visit rsa.ed.gov/about/states.
The Job Accommodation Network maintains a searchable database of statewide Voc Rehab offices. Find it at askjan.org.
The Social Security Administration has good Voc Rehab info at its Ticket to Work page, yourtickettowork.ssa.gov/state-vr-agencies.