DVR Celebrates a Century of Vocational Rehabilitation in America


image of a man wearing glasses

On June 2, 2020, the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation, within the Department of Social and Health Services, will celebrate the 100th anniversary of the public Vocational Rehabilitation program in the U.S.

It was on June 2, 1920 that President Woodrow Wilson signed into law the Smith-Fess Act. Referred to as “The National Civilian Vocational Rehabilitation Act,” this law made possible the first federally funded program assisting people with disabilities who had not acquired their disabilities during military service.

What spurred the creation of the Smith-Fess Act serving civilians with disabilities was the preceding Smith-Sears Veterans Rehabilitation Act of 1918, providing vocational assistance and employment support services to those returning home from war with newly acquired disabilities.

In the early 1900s, as the U.S. transitioned from an agrarian economy and introduced more manufacturing and industrial-based employment, there occurred more on-the-job injuries. Soldiers who had fought in World War I were experiencing disabilities in higher numbers. It was not enough for states and nonprofit charities, alone, to support individuals with disabilities with employment services. Therefore, a nation-wide, public VR program was established.

Vocational Rehabilitation 100

Over its 100 years, the public VR program has expanded its services and programs through various legislations. One of the most significant legislative changes to occur in modern U.S. history was the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. This landmark federal law replaced the Smith-Fess Act of 1920. It extended and revised the reauthorization of grants to states for vocational rehabilitation services, and emphasized and prioritized vocational rehabilitation services to individuals with most significant disabilities. It also, for the first time, tied disability to major life functions, moving away from the “medical model.”

Washington State DVR employs hundreds of vocational rehabilitation professionals, helping working-age individuals, as well as students with disabilities, with individualized, employment-related services. These services enable thousands of individuals each year prepare for, attain, maintain, or advance in competitive, integrated, employment. With the passage of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act of 2014, the public VR program affirmed its role as a core partner in the nation’s public workforce system, providing direct support to businesses to meet their workforce needs.

VR professionals across the U.S. promote the ideal that disability is a natural part of the human experience that does not diminish the right of individuals to enjoy the opportunity to live independently, enjoy self-determination, make choices, contribute to society, and experience full integration and inclusion in the economic, political, social, cultural and educational mainstream of American society.

WA DVR embraces its VR roots, both past and present, and celebrates a bright future for VR moving forward.