Audit recommends stronger oversight to ensure participants get attention they need to reach goals and fulfill program's mission
The program run by the New York State Education Department (SED) to help New Yorkers with disabilities gain employment, transition to independent living, and rise out of poverty is not fulfilling its mission because it too often leaves participants with inadequate plans that do not accomplish those goals, according to an audit released by State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli.
“People with disabilities often face great obstacles in finding and keeping the jobs they want, and the pandemic has only made things harder,” DiNapoli said. “The State Education Department needs to do a better job with this important program for people with disabilities. The program’s vital mission is not always fulfilled due to the agency’s failure to monitor progress and by significant delays in implementing the individual plans for achieving participants’ employment goals. I applaud the governor’s appointment of a chief disability officer, and hope that this will result in much-needed improvements to the state’s services and support for people living with disabilities.”
The Adult Career and Continuing Education Services – Vocational Rehabilitation Supported Employment Program (ACCESS-VR) provides vocational rehabilitation services and supports the employment goals of people with a disability. SED has 15 ACCES-VR district offices with 293 full-time vocational counselors and 97 counselor assistants.
Unemployment rates among New Yorkers with disabilities have historically been higher than for the general population. The pandemic led to soaring unemployment rates in New York, which peaked in April 2020. For the one-year period between September 2020 and August 2021, unemployment rates for people with a disability averaged 15.2%, 7.9% over prepandemic averages. This rate continues to be significantly higher than for the general population.
Under the ACCESS-VR program, counselors work with individuals to develop an individualized plan for employment. The IPE should identify the employment goal for the participant, the services that will be provided and how progress will be measured.
DiNapoli’s auditors, however, found SED does not regularly meet the deadlines for eligibility determinations (60 days after the application date), finalization of IPEs (90 days after eligibility date), or annual reviews of IPEs, which are required by federal law and SED policy.
Auditors selected and reviewed 200 participants’ case files from April 2017 to December 2020 and found:
√ 27 had late eligibility determinations.
√ 35 had IPEs that were completed late.
√ 47 had late annual reviews.
For example, one participant’s eligibility was determined 175 days after the application date – 115 days late. Another participant had their IPE finalized 362 days after the eligibility determination date 272 days late. Auditors found SED implemented a corrective action plan after a 2018 federal review and has met its goal of meeting the timeliness requirements for 90% of the eligibility determinations and IPE finalizations. However, annual reviews are still not being conducted on time.
Auditors also found the IPEs do not contain all the required information in sufficient detail. They reviewed 50 IPEs for the required contents. The IPEs generally contained the majority of the required elements, but none contained all of them. The sections of the IPE that were completed also often contained vague or boilerplate language, rather than using specific, customized, or detailed language as called for in SED policy.
SED failed to provide any documented evaluations to show they were adequately monitoring the ACCES-VR program to make sure participants were getting the training, education, rehabilitation, and career development they needed. Moreover, the department cannot evaluate the success or improvement areas for individual participants or the program overall without better monitoring.
SED also provides data to different entities, which could be used to evaluate program effectiveness. An independent report by an advisory group based on department data found:
√ ACCES-VR arranged job placement for 5,609 participants for federal fiscal year (FFY) 2020 compared to 7,792 for FFY 2019, a decrease of nearly 30%;
√ 8% of all ACCES-VR participants achieved an employment outcome (the goal was a minimum of 55.8%); and
√ The ratio for ACCES-VR wages compared to the average state wage was 0.45 (the goal was 0.52).
DiNapoli recommended SED:
√ Improve controls to better determine eligibility, finalize IPEs, and ensure IPE annual reviews are being completed on time;
√ Ensure that IPEs are fully developed for each participant who requires one and contain sufficient detail; and
√ Periodically evaluate the effectiveness of the ACCES-VR program based on individual participants’ goals and achievements to ensure that participants are receiving the full benefit of its services.
SED officials generally disagreed with the audit’s findings. Their comments are included in the audit along with the corresponding comptroller’s comments.
√ State Education Department: Adult Career and Continuing Education Services Supported Employment Program.