Vocational rehabilitation (VR) agencies nationwide have faced many challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic, as they strived to connect with isolated deaf students, overcome technology issues, and continue to support access to Pre-Employment Transition Services (Pre-ETS), vocational training, and employment.

Eager to overcome those challenges, more than 500 VR staff, community rehabilitation providers (CRPs), and educators registered for two online events. Vocational Rehabilitation During COVID-19: A Live Discussion for Transition Professionals, organized by the National Deaf Center on Postsecondary Outcomes (NDC), was held on July 28 and Aug. 6.

Participants gained insights from four experienced professionals who shared how they addressed the pandemic and what strategies they used to support student success. The panelists were:

“Now more than ever, VR professionals play a critical role in providing services and support to maximize employment, independence, and community inclusion for deaf students,” said Director of Operations Tia Ivanko, MS, who manages all live online events for NDC. “The overwhelming response to these events shows how committed they are to connecting with each other and learning best practices for these unique times.”

VR Agencies Highly Affected by Pandemic and Shift to Online Service

Attendees were polled about how the pandemic has affected their organizations. They responded (with the option to choose more than one):

  • Technology issues and problems: 62%

  • Budget cuts or freezes: 34%

  • Staff furloughs or layoffs: 16%

  • None of the above: 23%

Nearly two-thirds have problems with technology at a time when they need it the most.

When asked how they were providing services to deaf youth and young adults, 90% responded mostly online, 6% had suspended services, and 4% were conducting services in mostly face-to-face settings.

Challenges for Outreach

“Reaching out, finding, and supporting [deaf and hard of hearing] students — whether in person or through video — was already a challenge. And then comes the pandemic and increases that challenge,” said panelist Jimmy Mitchell. “In Oklahoma, we were prepared to cover Pre-ETS, but COVID-19 changed everything. Now we’re having regional meetings throughout the state to reach out to schools.”

Strategies that some panelists used to connect with deaf students were cut short by COVID-19 or lost momentum last spring.

“In Alabama, probably like most states, one of the issues we’ve had is really locating students who are deaf and hard of hearing,” said panelist Bedarius Bell. “They always seemed to fall through the cracks.”

So, Bell continued, the state created a summer camp program to locate students and encourage them to seek out services.

“Most summers we had at least four, including career exploration, an ACT academy, and college prep camps. It really helped students who didn’t really know about VR before but needed the services. We were only able to get one done before the pandemic closed us down,” Bell said. “We have a virtual summer camp for college prep, but a reduced number plan to attend compared to in-person camps.”

Some quickly pivoted to moving their outreach online.

“We scheduled an event called Deaf Ready that was supposed to be in person and now it’s virtual,” said panelist Cathy Corrado. “We have about 30 employers who are going to connect with our students over three days at the end of September on Zoom.

“It’s based on career clusters — a manufacturing group, a trade group, a hospitality group. Because we felt the 2020 graduates got really shortchanged, we’re inviting them back, as well as all the juniors and seniors. Teachers are going to get a PowerPoint with all the information about Deaf Ready and the companies that are going to be there, so they can help register their students.”

Agencies Use Technology to Bridge Gaps

Technology and access for students is also critical. Bell noted that Alabama provided a bus with wifi for rural students and areas without internet access, plus added lessons in online etiquette and increased agency bandwidth to comply with information privacy guidelines.

“We’re addressing job exploration online by using NDC Deaf Success videos and National Association of the Deaf’s Deaf at Work videos,” said panelist Kathy Stoehr. “Our team also immediately checked in with all of our students. We found out we have to do more work in terms of ensuring that students have connectivity at home. But also did they have access to a mental health counselor if they needed that?”

Stoehr noted that when the state of South Carolina initially conducted a statewide poll of families, they were missing 16,000 students who had never done any work online.

“It is an awful concern,” said Stoehr. “I think of deaf and hard of hearing kids who maybe didn’t have online access, or didn’t understand the instructions, or maybe the parents didn’t understand or speak another language. It’s very scary in terms of academic progress, but we must stay flexible. We’re working with a student as a whole person, and all of us need that kind of flexibility right now.”

Focusing on teachers is another strategy for success.

“We created resources for teachers with videos they can use in online classrooms,” said Corrado. “One is called ‘These Hands,’ which featured eight employers who have a deaf person working for them and videotaped them at their job site. Another series is on financial literacy, which differentiates between a need and a want.”

Impact of Isolation, Mental Health Issues, and Racial Tensions

Attendees polled said the biggest impact on deaf youth during the pandemic is isolation and mental health issues (44.5%), followed by uncertainty and inability to plan for the future (25%), lack of technology and online access (20.5%), and academic setbacks (20.5%).

“In addition to the mental health concerns that this pandemic has caused, there’s been a lot of racial unrest and tensions that have flared up,” said Bell. “I know a deaf teen who told his parents he was afraid to go to work. ‘What if the same thing that happens to me that happened to George Floyd?’ Part of encouraging self-advocacy is also helping students realize and understand their rights and how to address these situations.”

It can also mean expanding the amount of counseling that needs to happen.

“As VR counselors, we are trained to be culturally competent. We can at least have an open space for students to have these conversations, to help students figure out what it means as students to show up as their authentic selves.

“NDC has a report titled ‘ACCESS is More Than Accommodations.’ So what else is access? How can I advance in a job if I’m Black, deaf, or LGBTQIA? How do I learn these new technologies? What if online is an uncomfortable form of learning for me? We have to get back to the basics of counseling, yet embrace a new mindset,” said Bell.

Using technology to connect can help.

“We began to notice that some deaf students and adults who use ASL or rely on facial expression and speech reading were having a harder time,” said Stoehr. “We worked really hard to find any type of speech-to-text applications and technology, in case there are situations where communication is not going well. We also tried to create activities to help kids engage with each other, people who sign, and deaf role models.”

A continuing issue is reaching deaf students with other disabilities.

“For our deafblind community, the technology has been really isolating,” said Bell. “It has been very challenging to figure out strategies to connect with that population.”

Don’t Be Another Barrier

Asking deaf clients how they prefer to communicate, staying flexible, and not adding other barriers are essential.

“Whether it’s wearing a clear mask or deciding how to meet with a student, I follow what the client prefers,” said Mitchell. “We wear face masks and practice social distancing if we can meet in person and do teleconferences if we can’t. We’re also using FaceTime if people have an iPhone.

“We have to be flexible as VR counselors. We don’t want to be another added barrier to the barriers that are already in place for these students. We’re just ready to meet them where they are, however they prefer, whatever restrictions they have.”

Other resources mentioned by the panelists included Deaf2Deaf Experience, These Hands, Hearing Loss Association of America, Automatic Speech Recognition (ASR) webinar, and The National Deaf-Blind Equipment Distribution Program (iCanConnect).

More Live Events Planned

These panels are part of a series of online events hosted by NDC to address the needs of deaf young adults at school and work during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Past events included two panels for deaf college students to connect and find ways to cope with unique struggles, a half-day session for state leaders in education and VR to strategize transition planning and services, as well as panels that brought together people who are #DeafAtWork and disability services professionals.

Upcoming events include a session on Sept. 15 with the NDC Help Team on online accessibility for college students and panels on September 20 and 29 for parents and families of deaf youth.

Get More Information and Help

VR professionals, CRPs, and transition specialists can find more information and assistance from NDC.