$5 Million for Better Service

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Department of Rehabilitation Psychology & Special Education
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2011 Feature: $5 Million + 5 Years for Better Service

Since the Smith-Fess Act of 1920, state vocational rehabilitation agencies have offered job placement services to people with disabilities.

People with physical disabilities were once the primary clientele but in recent decades, anyone with any type of disability could seek employment services.

The state-federal vocational rehabilitation program is the oldest and most successful public program supporting the employment and independence of individuals with disabilities, said RPSE Professor Fong Chan.

"Without these agencies, some people would have nowhere to go for ways to become employed," Chan said.

2009 Success RatesThe program serves one million individuals each year with a success rate – defined as being placed in a job for at least 60 days – of about 58 percent. Success rates vary widely from state to state, as well as by disability type, race and other factors.

For example, overall success rates in 2009 were 42% in Wisconsin, 49% in Minnesota, 57% in Illinois, 55% in Ohio, 59% in North Carolina, 57% in Texas, 46% in Florida, and 58% in California.

A team of researchers at UW-Madison and UW-Stout want to improve those rates and see more people with disabilities placed in higher quality and longer-lasting jobs.

The research team, lead by Chan and UW-Stout Professor John Lui, received a $5 million grant from the federal government to identify ways state agencies can improve employment services for adults with disabilities, and especially those within subpopulations that have the lowest employment outcomes.

The 5-year grant from the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research in the U.S. Department of Education will fund the Rehabilitation Research and Training Center on Effective Vocational Rehabilitation Service Delivery Practices.

"I think that they really wanted to fund research that has significant practical relevance for each state because it's customized," Chan said. “And because there will be an in-depth analysis to determine what (the state agencies) are doing right and what can be improved… and not looking at all state agencies as exactly the same but looking at their local context."

Chan and Lui, who also serves as director of UW-Stout’s Vocational Rehabilitation Institute, will co-direct the Center. Professor David Rosenthal will serve as associate director and graduate student Catherine Anderson, who also works as associate director of the Stout Vocational Rehabilitation Institute, will serve as assistant director.

Their research partners include Professor Michael Leahy at Michigan State University, Professor Madan Kundu and Professor Alo Dutta at Southern University at Baton Rouge, and Professor Timothy Tansey at the University of Texas-El Paso. RPSE graduate students Chia-Chiang Wang, Veronica Muller and Sandra Fitzgerald also work on the research team.

The team plans to use the World Health Organization ICF framework to study how environmental factors such as state characteristics and agency characteristics interact with individual characteristics such as gender, race, and disability type, to affect service provision and employment outcomes of people with disabilities.

Chan earned his PhD from UW-Madison but met Lui when he was an undergraduate at UW-Stout and Lui was a graduate student. They remained friends and colleagues, and now share the daunting responsibility of researching ways to improve the effectiveness of every state’s vocational rehabilitation agency and creating a training center to increase quality outcomes for each of those agencies.

Chan’s team at UW-Madison will begin their work by analyzing federal data collected from each state agency, and data from other state and federal databases to determine job placement and success rates by state, agency and population characteristics.

They want to know how factors such as case load, financial resources and percent commitment to significant disabilities impact employment outcomes from customized, evidence-based interventions.

Veronica Muller, a second-year graduate student, has been helping to gather, organize and analyze the data. She discovered gaps in the data sets and had to find the missing information by searching the Web and even making phone calls.

“It really helped my research skills because you have to get creative and go to different places for (the data),” Muller said. “I am learning to look at patterns and find areas that need to be improved.”

The students working on this project keenly recognize that they are part of what will be far-reaching and widespread change in the quality of life for people with disabilities, she said. “It’s humbling.”

The students also have the side benefit of becoming better researchers, teachers and service providers, said Muller, who focuses her own work on rehabilitation outcomes for people with psychiatric illnesses.

Lui’s team will use the findings to provide feedback and training opportunities for each state to improve the rate, quality and longevity of employment opportunities for people with disabilities.

The research and training center team also aims to both validate successful evidence-based practices and develop new culturally sensitive practices, Chan said.

“Everybody has to work smarter with less money,” he said. “I’d like to believe we are doing this to help improve the effectiveness and efficiency of the agencies in an era of having to do more with less.”


Fong ChanAbout Fong Chan

Fong Chan knew from his youth in the Hong Kong refugee settlement where his family fled to from China in 1945, that he wanted to serve the poor and disadvantaged.

He spent many hours in an institution for children with mental and physical disabilities after an accident disabled his younger brother while his parents were at work.

“That left an impression on me… I always wanted to work with marginalized people,” he said. “My first career goal was to become a Catholic priest and to work in the poorest parish because I grew up in those areas.”

Chan’s parents wanted him to have a better life than theirs – to become a successful doctor, engineer or businessman.

Instead, he set his sights on making a career out of helping the poor and disabled. “I only know I wanted to be poor,” Chan said. “I’ve always hung out with poor people… Money was never really that important to me.”

His parents were disappointed at the prospect that he wouldn’t become wealthy but now they are proud. Chan has been a successful educator and researcher for the past 28 years and has amassed wealth in a different way than his parents originally hoped for.