Image of a Trade School Industrial Art Class in 1910
Trade School Industrial Art Class, c. 1910

Vocational Rehabilitation.
Nationwide concern about the employment of handicapped World War veterans led to passage of the Vocational Rehabilitation Act (Smith-Fess Act) of 1920. Under the act the federal government reimbursed 50 per cent of the direct cost of vocational rehabilitation services (guidance, training, medical exams, prosthetics) provided by a state to physically handicapped individuals. New York added funding for a living allowance. A Bureau of Rehabilitation, headed by Dr. Riley M. Little, a national leader in the field, was set up in the Education Department in 1921. Through the 1930s caseloads numbered a few thousand. Amendments to the federal act of 1943 made mentally retarded and emotionally disturbed individuals eligible for rehabilitation and provided one hundred per cent of a state program's administrative costs. By the early 1950s New York's rehabilitation caseload totalled 20,000 individuals; most of the disabilities resulted from accidents, polio, tuberculosis, and 'mental" conditions. Most of these individuals were referred for rehabilitation by the Department of Health or the Workman's Compensation Board. After 1944 vocational rehabilitation was headed by a division director, and after 1956, by an assistant commissioner-signs of the growing size and scope of the program.

Federal support for rehabilitation services has increased greatly since the 1950s. Federally-aided grants to community agencies to develop rehabilitation facilities began in 1955. A new Vocational Rehabilitation Act of 1965 increased the federal share of rehabilitation costs to 75 per cent (80 per cent after 1968 and 78.3 per cent after 1993, though New York generally paid more than its legally-required share). In 1968 controversial amendments to the federal law declared that a socially or culturally "disadvantaged" individual might be eligible for rehabilitation; in OVR there was much sympathy for this approach. Federal acts passed in 1973 shifted the national program focus to severely disabled persons (that population had been the main focus of New York's rehabilitation program for many years). An "individualized written rehabilitation program" became standard for OVR clients. Federal law protected persons with disabilities against discrimination in the work place.

New York has started some innovative rehabilitation programs. Professional rehabilitation services in sheltered workshops, the first in the nation, were funded in 1963. Inter-agency cooperation grew during the 1950s and '60s. The Office of Vocational Rehabilitation (OVR) and the Department of Mental Hygiene agreed in 1968 to offer cooperative rehabilitation services at facilities for mentally ill and retarded persons. (The program expanded greatly after the Willowbrook consent decree of 1975, when "deinstitutionalization" became state policy.) A 1969 statute established a program of long-term sheltered employment for mentally retarded persons who had been OVR clients (the program was transferred to the Office of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities in 1989). Starting in 1971 OVR worked closely with the Department of Social Services to rehabilitate persons with disabilities receiving social services. Vocational rehabilitation programs were also extended to eligible persons in prisons and substance abuse programs. In 1978-80 OVR used federal funds to establish a statewide network of Independent Living Centers (ILCs), community-based organizations run by individuals with disabilities to help their peers lead independent lives.

The rapid growth in OVR's caseload (40,000 in the early 1970s, over 100,000 by mid-decade) brought serious administrative problems, fostered by the decentralized case-counselor method of service. In 1977 the State Commission of Investigation reported instances of waste, neglect, abuse, fraud, and laxity in OVR operations. A Division of the Budget study found deficiencies in organization, communications, and operations; OVR needed better internal and external auditing, service monitoring, and program planning-in short, an improved administrative superstructure. Vocational rehabilitation services were reorganized by 1982, and audit functions were assumed by the Department's main audit unit. However, OVR remained under scrutiny. Groups of service recipients and service contractors complained about poor coordination and communication in OVR. For other reasons, each year the Governor's office proposed setting up an independent office of rehabilitation services in the Executive Department

After more studies of OVR, the Commissioner and the Regents decided in 1989 to give the program new leadership, a new organization, even a new name-the Office of Vocational and Educational Services to Individuals with Disabilities (VESID). Changes followed quickly. The old divisions and bureaus disappeared, replaced by new functional units. The Education Department was designated, in 1992, as the lead state agency in providing regular, rather than sheltered, employment opportunities to individuals with severe disabilities. Reform efforts led to formation of counseling teams which improved productivity in the district offices. "Quality management" principles and processes have been applied to help VESID serve the 57,000 adults who currently receive rehabilitation services.

Special Education

The 1894 compulsory attendance law brought many handicapped children into the classroom for the first time. Around 1900 Buffalo and New York City established the first special classes for retarded or crippled children. Statutes passed in 1917 required city and union free school districts to identify children with "physical defects" or 'retarded mental development" and to provide special classes for groups of ten or more; in 1923-24 state aid was authorized for such classes. Districts with smaller numbers of handicapped pupils were authorized to contract with other districts or with private schools, or to provide "home teaching or transportation to school." After about 1915 some New York educators used newly-developed standardized tests to identify pupils needing special help. At the request of schools, a bureau of "educational measurements" was set up in 1923 to promote educational and psychological testing, conduct studies of educational methods and needs, and assist teachers of the mentally handicapped. By the mid-1930s there were over one thousand special classes for the "mental ly subnormal" across the state, mostly in cities. After a legislative commission in the mid-1920s investigated the plight of young victims of polio and other diseases, the Regents established a bureau for physically handicapped children (1926)., The Commissioner chaired a new inter-agency advisory commission for the physically disabled. By 1930 there were over six hundred classes for physically handicapped children. After 1941 education of both mentally and physically handicapped children was directed from one bureau (a division after 1962, an office after 1976).

Policies were clarified and redirected, emphasizing New York's national leadership in special education programs. A 1944 law declared that the Education Department should "stimulate all private and public efforts designed to relieve, care for, cure or educate physically handicapped children,' and coordinate its efforts with other governmental programs. This policy statement was extended in 1957 to include mentally retarded children as well. Ten years later the "handicapped child" was legally, and more flexibly, redefined as an individual who 'because of mental, physical or emotional reasons, cannot be educated in regular c@ es but can benefit by special services and programs." This definition summarized state policy, which since the early years of the century had favored removing handicapped children from regular classrooms and schools, and placing them in "special classes,' home teaching, or private schools.

In the 1950s and '60s this policy slowly began to shift toward "inclusion." Public schools were authorized to hold special classes for severely mentally handicapped children starting 1955, and required to do so after 1961. During the 1960s the Department encouraged efforts to place multi-handicapped or brain-injured children in public schools. Some BOCES started offering instruction to the handicapped in the later 1950s, and BOCES centers offered full special education programs after 1967. Special aid to schools for education of handicapped children, abolished in 1962, was restored by legislative acts in 1974 and 1976. A broad ranging Regents policy statement on "Education of Children with Handicapping Conditions" (1973) recommended placing them in regular classrooms when possible ("main streaming"). School committees on the handicapped were required by a Commissioner's regulation. (These policy and program changes anticipated the major federal standards for special education during the later 1970s.) In 1973 and again in 1977 the Commissioner ordered the New York City school system to improve its special education programs, which had long waiting lists and many unserved children.

The Department monitors and regulates placement of handicapped children in special schools. A 1925 statute required the keeping of a statewide register of Physically handicapped children. (This register was later expanded to include mentally handicapped and emotionally disturbed children; the register is now maintained in the automated STAC system.) Starting 1925 the Children's Court (after 1962 the Family Court) was authorized to order medical and educational services for physically handicapped children (costs were shared by the county and the state); the Department reviewed and approved orders for educational services. For decades the court had primary responsibility for placing children with severe physical disabilities-often in state-supported or private schools. A 1957 statute authorized the Education Department, rather than local districts, to contract with out-of-state private institutions to educate physically handicapped children having unusual or multiple handicaps if no public school or in-state private facility could accommodate them. In 1966-67 this program was extended to in-state institutions and broadened to include mentally retarded and emotionally disturbed children. Attempts were made to control the rapidly rising costs of these programs.

Federal aid for new programs to educate children with handicapping conditions was authorized under the ESEA Title VI-A in 1967. Congress passed the Education of All Handicapped Children Act in 1975 (revised in 1990 as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, IDEA). This act required the states (starting 1977) to provide all children with disabilities with a -free, appropriate education in the least restrictive environment," and to protect the rights of the children and their parents. Minimal federal aid came with this big mandate. New York modified its special education system to comply with the federal act. A 1976 state law required the school committees on special education to develop an individualized educational program in the "least restrictive environment," for each child identified as having a disability. (If at all possible, the child was supposed to be placed in a local school, in a regular classroom, rather than in a private school.) Procedural safeguards were adopted. After 1980 schools were required to screen all new pupils for handicapping conditions, as well as for "giftedness" and low skills in reading and math.

After the mid-1970s school districts were responsible for recommending and providing services for all children of school age who were identified as having disabilities. For the first time districts paid the basic cost of education for children placed in approved private schools, state-supported schools for children with handicaps, and the state-run schools for the blind and the deaf. Districts again contracted with in-state institutions for the handicapped (also with out-of-state special schools after 1989). Contract terms and rates were subject to Department approval and audit. The Family Court's jurisdiction over children with disabilities was limited to those under age five or attending summer programs. A 1989 amendment required districts to provide a free appropriate education for three- and four-year old children with disabilities, as required by federal law (effective 1991), ending the Family Court's routine involvement in special education.

In 1994 the Regents approved a policy strengthening the state's commitment to educating children with disabilities in the "least restrictive" setting, as required by state and federal law. New procedures required school committees on special education to consider placing children in general education programs, before recommending placement in special classes or schools. Between 1991-92 and 1994-95 the percentage of pupils with disabilities educated in general education classes increased from eight to nearly forty per cent-near the national level. (In the fifteen years after 1979-80 the percentage of students with disabilities in New York's public schools nearly doubled, to 12.1 per cent-330,000 individuals-the result of new legislation, court decisions, and changing education policy.)

Since the 1980s the Department has increasingly coordinated educational plans and services for children and adults having disabilities. Starting 1983, a cooperative team approach was used to provide special and occupational education and vocational rehabilitation services to youths still in school. New state laws facilitated the progression of students with disabilities to adult programs, and OVR staff established contacts with the schools. Reflecting New York's successes, transition services for students with disabilities were covered by the federal Rehabilitation Act after 1992. Culminating a trend, in 1995 the Department's special education program was moved to the Office of Vocational and Educational Services for Individuals with Disabilities, in order to coordinate services to disabled individuals throughout their lives. The Department prepares state plans for educating children with disabilities, coordinates services with other state agencies, and develops policies and programs with the help of an advisory panel. It also coordinates a network of special education training specialists in BOCES and the big city districts, as well as information centers for parents of pre-school children with disabilities.

Schools for the Blind and Deaf

State support for deaf or blind children in private institutions began in the early nineteenth century. After 1864 the Superintendent of Public Instruction approved appointments to these state-supported schools. The New York State School for the Blind opened at Batavia in 1868, and has been operated by the Education Department since 1919. Another residential facility, the School for the Deaf at Rome, formerly privately-run, was acquired by the state in 1963. Both institutions now serve primarily children with multiple handicaps. The Commissioner of Education appoints pupils to the two state schools and to certain private schools for the deaf and blind. Blind and deaf children in state or private facilities were supported entirely by state appropriations and county funds prior to 1977, after that with partial reimbursement from their home school districts.


Last Updated: November 25, 2008