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How Students Can Succeed with the Department of Rehabilitation

 

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by Harrison Greanias, Berkeley, CA



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The California Department of Rehabilitation (DOR) is a state agency that provides services that can be instrumental in helping disabled people become competitive in the labor force. As a young person, DOR’s services can help you in many ways. For example, DOR could pay for your college tuition, buy assistive technology you need, provide you with independent living and employment workshops, and even pay you a salary to do an internship.

DOR’s services sound great, but how much you benefit from them all depends on whether you have a good relationship with your DOR counselor and whether you know how to do all the necessary paperwork.  

Your relationship with DOR will start when you are finishing high school or when you turn 18. This article will present some tips that will help you make sure things go well for you with DOR. If you don’t live in California, your state will have a similar agency with a similar name, and while the services it offers are generally the same, some rules could be different.

Getting Started with the Department of Rehabilitation

You will typically start dealing with the Department of Rehabilitation during your last semester in high school. Your first meeting with a DOR counselor is usually at your last high school Individualized Education Program (IEP) meeting. If you don’t have an IEP, you can apply for services and arrange for a meeting. Your experience with DOR can rely heavily on your DOR counselor and it is important to find a good counselor.

Before the last IEP meeting, you can do a few things that can help make sure that the counselor who comes to your meeting is truly your “dream” DOR counselor:

  • Ask your assistive technology vendor about DOR counselors.

    • Assistive technology vendors are very knowledgeable about DOR counselors because they have to work with DOR counselors every time DOR purchases assistive technology. Ask your vendor if he or she knows which counselors are easy to work with and which counselors are more difficult.

  • If you plan to attend a college or university, talk to an advisor in its disabled student services office.

    • Advisers at your college frequently talk to DOR counselors and can recommend a counselor for you. This is especially valuable if you plan to go to college far from where you go to high school.

  • Get advice from disability community organizations.

If these people and other people you trust can help you find a good counselor, contact that counselor and begin establishing a relationship with that person even before your last IEP meeting. You can contact the counselor through your local DOR office. If you find a counselor you want to work with, let your IEP know so that you can make sure that your preferred counselor is the one who comes to your last IEP meeting. If you aren’t able to find a counselor, that’s okay –just make sure that your IEP advisor contacts the local DOR office and gets them to assign you a counselor.

Meeting Your DOR Counselor

You will meet your DOR counselor at your final IEP meeting. During the meeting, he or she will begin assessing your necessary level of accommodations. That means that the DOR counselor will be determining what accommodations and assistive technology you qualify for based on your medical documentation and what your IEP says.

That makes it very important to bring as much relevant medical documentation about your disability as you can to this first meeting. By doing so, you can ensure that you get the accommodations you need. If possible, get your doctor to provide an endorsement of the accommodations you currently use.

Due to the nature of some disabilities, even with sufficient medical documentation, a DOR counselor may insist on you seeing their recommended physician to reassess your disability. In my case, I had been seeing a low-vision specialist for 10 years and had all the necessary paperwork from other doctors as well, but my DOR counselor still wanted me to see a different DOR-approved vision doctor and go through the same tests I had already done.

In most cases however, if you provide sufficient medical documentation and contact information for your doctors, your DOR counselor will make their accommodations list for you based on the information you and your IEP provide.

How DOR can Support Your Educational Goals

The Department of Rehabilitation will provide you with the accommodations that they have determined you need. That’s why it is so important to give good documentation during and after that first meeting, because DOR will pay for the accommodations they believe you need, including assistive technology, laptops, and many other things.

Accommodations are not the only way DOR will provide you with to help you reach your goals. Another very important support that DOR provides is financial help in paying for higher education, including community college or four-year college.

To get financial support for college from DOR, first you must apply for financial aid from your college by completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Then, after your college or university has looked over your financial aid application and made you an offer, DOR will help you pay for expenses that your college or university won’t pay for.

That means that DOR could actually end up providing you most or all of the money you need for your tuition and up to $500 per semester for books! DOR will pay the tuition for any public university or college in California, ranging from community colleges to public universities. If you go to a private college in California, then DOR usually pays the equivalent of University of California (UC) tuition, which is currently about $12,000.

This financial aid can make a world of difference. However, with the state’s current budgetary problems, you may find it difficult to get DOR to finance your tuition if you attend a private school. I recently talked to a friend of mine who had a very hard time convincing DOR to provide the UC tuition equivalent for private college. With no sign that the state’s finances will improve, it will probably only become more difficult to get all of the help with tuition you need.

Navigating the DOR Bureaucracy

After meeting your counselor, you need to make sure that DOR doesn’t forget about you and your goals and needs. It is important to get started as soon as possible with DOR and to be persistent. You will likely find that the bureaucracy of the Department of Rehabilitation is daunting and that they are slower than you’d like. That’s why it is essential that you communicate as often as possible with your counselor in writing. This helps you eliminate miscommunications and keep a written record of things. The easiest way to do this is by email.

Email also lets you keep on top of your counselor. Sometimes it seems like DOR’s timeline does not include deadlines. The thing is, your life does have deadlines! So, you need to keep reminding your DOR counselor of everything that he or she needs to be doing; email to keep tabs on any long-term projects you have, assistive technology purchases you need, and to confirm phone conversations.

When you get to the point where you begin discussing specific assistive technology purchases with your counselor, it is important that you provide as much information as possible at all times. For example, if you are visually impaired and would like to have a CCTV, don’t just say “I would like a CCTV.” Instead say that you’d like a CCTV and specify the brand and model you want. Even details that seem small, like whether you want a matte screen or a glossy screen on the laptop you are getting, are essential pieces of information to provide.  Always give as much information as possible! If there is information about the exact device you want online, email your counselor a link to that information.

While it can be stressful to deal with DOR, the services they offer can make a huge difference in your pursuit of economic and social independence. The benefits you can get can give you that edge you need in order to succeed and achieve your goals. In my case, DOR has financed the laptop I wrote this article on, my college tuition, and assistive technology. They even are reimbursing my employers for giving me an internship! The numerous services and financial support that DOR offers make it worth every headache it might cause.

For answers to many basic questions on the Department of Rehabilitation, visit DOR’s Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) webpage.

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