Ensuring an Inclusive Rapid Response to COVID-19

NOTE: 2020 is the 100th anniversary of the Vocational Rehabilitation Program.

Logos for the Michigan Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity, Rehabilitation Services (MRS), and Bureau of Services for Blind Persons (BSBP)

By the Michigan Rehabilitation Services (MRS) and Bureau of Services for Blind Persons (BSBP)


As the nation continues to adapt to the “new normal” brought on by COVID-19, so too do state vocational rehabilitation (VR) agencies. While the circumstances are unprecedented, VR’s nimbleness is not. Adapting during a pandemic is one more example of how the Michigan VR program has continually evolved to meet shifting needs over the course of its 100-year history.

Michigan’s Michigan Rehabilitation Services (MRS) and Bureau of Services for Blind Persons (BSBP) moved from other agencies to its Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity last August. This change increased collaboration between agencies serving workers and employers since these services are now under the same roof. For example, MRS and BSBP signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with Workforce Development and Unemployment Insurance related to sharing information in the wake of COVID-19.

The agencies have demonstrated this collaboration by planning multiple state-sponsored job fairs for essential businesses—such as grocery stores, pharmacies, healthcare organizations, logistics providers and online retailers—with urgent hiring needs.

VR’s involvement from the start is helping ensure the event’s technology solutions are accessible to all job seekers, including those with disabilities. BSBP is assessing potential platforms for compatibility with various assistive technology tools, and vendors are required to submit accessibility compliance reports for review.

The VR-specific Talent Acquisition Portal (TAP) operated by the Council of State Administrators of Vocational Rehabilitation’s National Employment serves as a model in terms of desired features and functionality as the agencies demo potential platforms.

“We were able to show our fellow workforce development colleagues what TAP looks like, how it’s fully accessible to all users and facilitates involvement of the VR counselor,” said Jenny Piatt, Bureau Division Director, MRS-Business Network Division. “It’s a system specific to the VR talent pool, so it’s not something we can use in this case, but it provides a great example of what’s possible and how we can deliver recruitment services to those business partners seeking to target a specific qualified candidate pool with wrap-around VR supports.”

Another goal is for the platform to allow job seekers to voluntarily self-identify as a person with a disability, which will allow VR to connect with them separately. This is an example of when the MOU comes into play, Piatt said.

“If someone does ‘raise their hand’ using the tool, it would now be allowable for us to reach out to them, even if just to say, ‘we understand you may be interested in services,’” Piatt said.

“Although unfortunate, circumstances right now have allowed for some innovative and creative thought about how we can connect with our talent pool in ways we have not before,” she said. “We appreciate being part of the conversation on the front end and the opportunity to collaborate.”

MRS and BSBP continues to assist businesses in need of staff in meeting their needs through a variety of innovative channels. As one example, Michigan is one of about a dozen states participating in Amazon’s Alternative Workforce Supplier Program, which works to increase opportunities for people who have traditionally faced barriers to employment, including people with disabilities. Over the last nine months, the company hired more than 45 MRS customers through the program—a number now expected to grow as the company works to meet increased demand.


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