Innovation: Faculty awarded $16.7 million grant for center supporting employment for people with disabilities


Work is a central component of identity for people in our society. Work provides not only income, but a sense of purpose and self-worth. It often helps define who we are and is a source of justifiable pride.

However, for many people with disabilities, there are barriers to finding meaningful employment. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, while 76 percent of individuals ages 16 to 64 without a disability were employed in 2020, only 33.5 percent with a disability were employed.

Several UW–Madison faculty members from the School of Education’s Department of Rehabilitation Psychology and Special Education (RPSE) are working on an important project to reduce this gap. And they have been awarded a $16.7 million grant from the federal Rehabilitation Services Administration to make it happen.

Tim Tansey
“The state vocational rehabilitation program provides essential services that increase economic opportunity through promoting pathways to employment and independence,” says the project’s principal investigator Timothy Tansey, a professor in RPSE.

The project will create a new center called the Vocational Rehabilitation Technical Assistance Center for Quality Employment (VRTAC-QE). The center will work with state vocational rehabilitation (VR) agencies and their affiliates to provide essential technical assistance and training.

VR agencies provide support and counseling to over 1.2 million people with disabilities to assist them in finding and maintaining employment.

“The state vocational rehabilitation program provides essential services that increase economic opportunity through promoting pathways to employment and independence,” says the project’s principal investigator Timothy Tansey, a professor in RPSE.

The other UW–Madison faculty members with RPSE who are leading the project are: Malachy Bishop, the Norman L. and Barbara M. Berven Professor of Rehabilitation Psychology and co-principal investigator; David Rosenthal, a professor and co-investigator; and Jina Chun, an assistant professor and co-investigator. The project is managed by Stacie Castillo, a graduate of the School’s master’s in Rehabilitation Counseling program.

Although more than 140,000 individuals obtain or retain employment each year through the services provided by state VR agencies, the VRTAC-QE was established to support the goal of these agencies for continuous quality improvement in services and employment outcomes.

Tricia Thompson of Menomonie, Wisconsin, speaks of some of the difficulties agencies confront, sharing the experience of her brother, Nathan Roemer — who is 26 years old and has a developmental disability.

Thompson has supported her brother as he engaged in various vocational rehabilitation services over a number of years. She feels there can sometimes be a lack of understanding of challenges faced by underserved populations or those with “invisible” disabilities like her brother’s, which may not be obvious to people who don’t know them.

Bishop, Rosenthal, Chun, and Castillo
Faculty members who are helping to lead the project are (clockwise from top left): Malachy Bishop, the Norman L. and Barbara M. Berven Professor of Rehabilitation Psychology and co-principal investigator; David Rosenthal, a professor and co-investigator; and Jina Chun, an assistant professor and co-investigator. The project is managed by Stacie Castillo (bottom, left).

“It’s hard for any of us to admit when we have challenges that we need support with, but it can be almost impossible for somebody who has a communication disability to find the words,” she says.

Thompson says that counselors need time and resources to understand the challenges their clients are dealing with, so that they can help address those issues before they become a problem.

In the first few months of the grant, Rosenthal says that VRTAC-QE researchers will be looking at every state VR program to help agencies better understand both their strengths and limitations.

“You know, where are the successes? Where are they actually providing good services, and where are the holes?” he says.

After surveying the VR landscape, VRTAC-QE will then identify best practices that lead to quality employment for people with disabilities, and provide intensive, targeted, and universal training to state VR agencies.

Some of VRTAC-QE’s targeted priorities include: improving employment and career opportunities for diverse and underserved communities (particularly Black, Latino/a, and Native American communities); providing effective outreach to veterans with disabilities; reaching out to youth with disabilities who are transitioning from school to work; conducting outreach with businesses; and supporting efforts of businesses to hire and retain people with disabilities.

Though UW–Madison researchers are leading this project, they are collaborating with hundreds of national leaders in research and training to create the center.

“We are eager, with our collaborators, to provide technical assistance and training that increase the capacity of these agencies and the people they serve,” says Tansey.

Partnering universities and organizations include: Virginia Commonwealth University; the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign; the Human Development Institute at the University of Kentucky; Florida Atlantic University; South Carolina State University; the University of Texas at El Paso; Iowa Wesleyan University; the Stout Vocational Rehabilitation Institute; the Council of State Administrators of Vocational Rehabilitation; the Autism Workforce; and Yolobe.

The VRTAC-QE’s goal is to help more people like Roemer find and maintain jobs. Thompson notes the difference having a stable job has made in her brother’s life. After years in and out of various jobs, a job developer helped him find a position at a manufacturing company.

“He was amazing,” she says of the developer’s efforts. “He connected with Nathan right away, and really got to under- stand what Nathan was successful at, and what he had more challenges with.”

Roemer has now been at his job for two years — the longest he has ever been employed. Thompson says having a good job has dramatically increased his self-esteem and independence.

“He has autonomy,” she says. “Work has helped him learn how much choice he has regarding when and where he works and how he spends his money. He also knows he can ask for assistance when he needs it without fear of criticism.”