Vocational Rehabilitation
Three people wearing masks, child, healthcare worker, man

History of Vocational Rehabilitation


World War I Veterans
In 1861, the American Civil War resulted in 30,000 amputations in the Union Army alone. This event brought disability issues to the American consciousness. Today’s Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) program has its origins from the World War I era when 204,000 American soldiers returned home with new disabilities from war injuries. The program was so successful in helping these injured soldiers, that Congress extended it to civilians. Florida’s VR program began in 1925. Image: WWI Veterans


Shia Labeouf and Zack Gottsagen at 2020 Oscars
Florida VR Customer Zack Gottsagen (shown right) made history as the first Oscar presenter with Downs Syndrome. The native Boyton Beach actor, who received a standing ovation upon hitting the Dolby Theater stage, announced the nominees and winner of the live-action short film category alongside co-star Shia LaBeouf. The actors starred together in the Indie sleeper The Peanut Butter Falcon. Though Zack did not receive any awards at the 92nd Academy Awards, he did break boundaries for individuals with disabilities into the entertainment industry. Image: Shia LaBeouf and Zack Gottsagen honored the best films of 2019 in Hollywood, Los Angeles, California.

The timeline of events are key dates that have led to the removal of barriers so that people with disabilities in the United States and Florida can participate fully in society. Starting shortly after the United States was founded, the disabilities timeline features examples of the remarkable diversity, creativity and leadership that has shaped the disability community up through today.


As early as 1541 at first contact by Francisco Vásquez de Coronado, there were reports that the Plains Indians had developed a sign language to communicate between tribes of different languages.


Founding Father Serves Despite Disability: Stephen Hopkins, a man with cerebral palsy, is one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. Hopkins is known for saying “my hands may tremble, my heart does not.”

Declaration of Independence
Signature of Stephen Hopkins on the Declaration of Independence


Alexander Graham Bell, most likely had dyslexia, went on to invent the first practical telephone. His learning disability did not stop him. In fact, his mother and wife were both Deaf, allowing him to understand advanced and alternative means of communication.


Florida School for the Deaf and the Blind was founded in St. Augustine. In 1882, Thomas Hines Coleman, a young deaf man, was preparing to graduate from Gallaudet University. He graduated from the South Carolina School for the Deaf and Blind and knew he wanted to make education for children his life’s work. Florida was one of the few states that had not made provision for the education of children who were deaf/hard of hearing or who had visual impairments. Coleman wrote Governor William D. Bloxham and he replied favorably toward the establishment of such a school. As their correspondence continued, the sum of $20,000 was reached as a minimum appropriation to start the school. The school is now the largest school of its type in the United States with 47 buildings on 82 acres. Notable alumni: Ray Charles attended St. Augustine School where he learned to read Braille; Ashley Fiolek, national women’s motocross champion; Marcus Roberts, jazz pianist; Joseph “Joe” Walker, sports broadcaster; and Sir Charles Atkins, Florida blues legend.

Ray Charles was a legendary musician often called the “Genius,” who pioneered the genre of soul music during the 1950s. Born Ray Charles Robinson on September 23, 1930, in Albany, Georgia, he was raised in Greenville, Florida, and started playing the piano before he was five. At age six, he contracted glaucoma that eventually left him blind. He studied composition (writing music in Braille) and learned to play the alto saxophone, clarinet, trumpet, and organ while attending the St. Augustine School for the Deaf and the Blind from 1937 to 1945.

Ray Charles


Florida required car owners to register their vehicles and issued paper certificates to be displayed on the vehicle. The first plate was made of leather. In 1951, Disabled Veteran license plate was offered. Enacted in 1990 and amended in 2008, ADA established the rights for individuals with disabilities to have access to public parking spaces and building entrances.


Soldier’s Rehabilitation Act helped to establish federally-funded rehabilitation services such as training and job placement services to assist men injured due to active duty or work-related injuries. Over the years, the program has evolved to protect the rights of people with disabilities in such areas as employment, education, public transportation and building accessibility.

Welding Tool Adaptation for Amputee at Walter Reed 1919

Welding Tool Adaptation for Amputee at Walter Reed 1919


June 2, signed into law by President Woodrow Wilson, the Smith-Fess Act (also known as the Civilian Vocational Rehabilitation Act) establishes the Vocational Rehabilitation program for Americans with disabilities. At this point, only individuals with physical disabilities are eligible for services.


Florida VR program began. Florida’s first director was Harold Corpening who served as both director and counselor. The first year he identified 2,000 known adults and 1,500 children with disabilities.


By the end of the second year, VR had 300 active clients with 17 successful closures; most of whom had been rehabilitated through training. Corpening spent 178 days in the field and logged 19,360 miles. Florida’s first special education class in Jacksonville.


Florida VR’s first successful outcome: W.M. Turner, a 26 year-old lineman for a utility company who crushed his foot on the job. Gangrene developed and he lost his leg and his job at the same time.


Interesting to know that during the Great Depression, VR was almost eliminated. The State Budget Commission omitted VR in the budget to the legislature, as the new governor’s platform was a reduction in expenditures. VR Director Claude Andrews was present at a Senate Appropriations Committee meeting. The secretary to the chairman of that committee was a former client of VR. She whispered to the chairman that the VR director was there. Director Andrews was asked to describe VR. He did and VR was kept alive--largely because of the former client’s experience.

Persons with disabilities
who got or kept jobs
Average weekly salary
Number of
customers ages

Persons with disabilities
who got or kept jobs
Average weekly salary
Number of
customers ages


The Social Security Act signed by President Roosevelt extending VR programs. The Act establishes an income maintenance system for those unable to work by providing benefits to unemployed individuals and retirees. The Act also outlines assistance to aged individuals, blind individuals, and dependent and “crippled” children.


June 20: Randolph-Sheppard Act signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the Act mandates a priority to people who are blind to operate vending facilities on federal property.


Herbert A. Everest (disabled American mining engineer) and Harry C. Jennings patent a design for a folding crossframe wheelchair that can be packed into a car. The earliest record of a wheelchair dates back to the 6th century as an inscription on a stone slate in China.

Wheelchair designs from 1920 to 2020.

Wheelchair designs from 1920 to 2020.


Thomas Alva Edison (1847-1931) lost all his hearing possibly because of scarlet fever. He often treated it as an asset that allowed him to concentrate on his experiments and research. Edison acquired 1,093 patents including his invention of the light bulb. He built his first laboratory in Fort Myers. The Fair Labor Standards Act establishes a national minimum wage and the Wagner-O’Day Act requires all federal agencies to purchase specified products made by people who are blind.


Florida Legislature established the Florida Council for the Blind.


August 11: Declaration of National Employ the Physically Handicapped Week. President Harry S. Truman approves a Congressional resolution declaring the first week in October “National Employ the Physically Handicapped Week.” In 1962, the word “physically” is removed to acknowledge the employment needs and contributions of individuals with all types of disabilities.


The Florida Council for the Blind acquired a U.S. Army convalescent center in Daytona Beach. Currently operates as the Rehabilitation Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired.


Congress creates a Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) program for workers (ages 50-64) with disabilities. Additional amendments two years later extend SSDI benefits to the dependents of workers with disabilities.


Medicare and Medicaid established.


Architectural Barriers Act requires all federal buildings to be accessible to people with physical disabilities. One example of this is that instead of just having steps, the building must provide ramps or elevators to allow people in wheelchairs access. First International Special Olympics Games. International symbol of access designed by Danish design student Susanne Koefoed.


The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 is amended to bring people with disabilities (other than blindness) into sheltered workshops.

Florida Senator Verle Pope talking with his new employee Scott Trees. Scott at 16 years old was rejected by Legion Boy’s State because of his handicap. He was born without hands or toes.
--Florida Memory, State Archives

Florida Senator Verle Pope talking with his new employee Scott Trees


The first Center for Independent Living (CIL) is established in Berkeley, CA. This sparked the CIL movement. First closed captioning.


The Rehabilitation Act, as amended is one of the most important pieces of legislation for VR. Section 504 of this act, made it illegal to discriminate against anyone solely on the basis of disability. Client Assistant Project, known as CAP, is established to advocate for clients of state VR agencies.


President Ford signs the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, which requires public schools to provide a “free appropriate public education” to all students, including those with disabilities. The Act is renamed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) in 1990.


After major demonstrations in 10 U.S. cities on April 5, including a 150-person sit-in in San Francisco led by Judith Heumann and Kitty Cone lasting 28 days, U.S. Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare Joseph Califano signs regulations implementing Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. These regulations extend civil rights to people with disabilities, covering any program or activity, including employment services, receiving federal financial assistance. Disability Rights Florida was founded to advocate, educate, investigate and litigate to protect and advance the rights, dignity, equal opportunities, self-determination and choices for all people with disabilities.


Special education teacher Marc Gold seeks to teach persons with intellectual disabilities to perform complex tasks. This provides the instructional foundation for the concept of Supported Employment.


Lani Deauville is the first female and individual with a disability to become VR director in Florida. She served from 1982-1985.


Disability advocates draw attention to the importance of transportation as a critical link to employment as well as education, recreation and all other aspects of community life. The Job Accommodation Network (JAN) opens. This first-of-its-kind technical assistance center provides free, expert and confidential guidance on workplace accommodations and disability employment issues.


President George H. W. Bush signs the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) into law. With today's signing of the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act, every man, woman, and child with a disability can now pass through once-closed doors into a bright new era of equality, independence, and freedom.
President George H. W. Bush signs the Americans
with Disabilities Act (ADA) into law.

Americans with Disabilities Act: President George H. W. Bush signs the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) into law. Modeled on the Civil Rights Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, the ADA stems from collective efforts by advocates in the preceding decades and is the most comprehensive disability rights legislation in history. Its employment provisions prohibit discrimination in job application procedures, hiring, advancement and termination and provide for equal access to workers’ compensation; job training; and other terms, conditions and privileges of employment.

Florida Association of Centers for Independent Living (FACIL) founded. FACIL provides support and resource development for 15 Centers for Independent Living throughout Florida. CILS are 501(c) (3), community-based, non-profit agencies that empower persons with disabilities to move from dependence to independence. David Jones was shot in a hunting accident that left him with permanent paralyses of his left leg and hand. This life changing event developed into his personal crusade and founded the Florida Disable Outdoors Association.


Centers for Autism and Related Disabilities (CARD) established seven centers funded by the Florida Legislature. CARD offers free supports within the natural contexts of all settings including homes, child care programs, schools, work, and community businesses and programs.


Telecommunications Act of 1996 recognizes the importance of access to telecommunications for people with disabilities in the Information Age. NASA Centers began to provide students with disabilities the opportunities to explore careers in high technology. High School/High Tech, an enrichment program, pioneered at Goddard Space Flight Center. The Small Business Job Protection Act of 1996 creates the Work Opportunity Tax Credit (WOTC) program, which provides a federal tax credit to companies that hire workers from populations that face high rates of unemployment, including people with certain disabilities.


Florida Alliance for Assistive Services and Technology, Inc. administered by VR provides Floridians with free access to assistive technology information, referral services, educational programs and publications.


U.S. Supreme Court issues the landmark Olmstead v. L.C. decision, which declares segregation of people with disabilities, when integrated, community-based settings are an option, a form of discrimination under the ADA. Through this decision, the Court sends a simple, yet profound, message that long-term services and supports for people with disabilities of all ages, including participation in community living or employment, must reflect what is appropriate for and desired by the individual.


The Able Trust sponsored the first Florida Youth Leadership Forum. A nonprofit foundation, The Able Trust has a mission to be the leader in providing Floridians with disabilities fair employment opportunities through fundraising, grant programs, public awareness and education. The YLF is one of four youth programs of The Able Trust that works to reduce the dropout rate of youth with disabilities and improve their participation in employment related activities. The Developmental Disabilities Assistance and Bill of Rights Act supports people with developmental disabilities in pursuing paid work experiences in integrated, community-based settings and acknowledge the importance of technology in increasing such opportunities.


ADA Amendments Act makes important changes to the definition of the term “disability.” These changes make it easier for a person seeking protection under the law to establish eligibility under it and require courts to focus more on assessing the extent of discriminatory practices than the technical definition of the term. Florida Disability History and Awareness Instruction signed into law. It requires school districts to designate the first two weeks of October as Disability History and Awareness Weeks and also promotes providing instruction for students in all public schools to expand student knowledge, understanding, and awareness of individuals with disabilities, disability history, and the disability rights movement.


The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act increases funding for the IDEA and provides more than $500 million for VR services, including job training, education and placement. Florida along with Colorado, Delaware, Georgia, Maryland, Michigan, Ohio, Oklahoma and South Carolina established state infrastructure supporting local implementation of High School High Tech. In those states, a total of 135 local HS/HT sites were serving students in over 350 schools.


The Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) reauthorizes and amends crucial programs to help job seekers access the services they need to succeed in employment and match employers with skilled workers.

Man working at a computer, man working at an airport, woman working in healthcare, woman working as a dog groomer, group of chefs and cooks.


Florida VR Customer Zack Gottsagen made history as the first Oscar presenter with Downs Syndrome.


Our economy and workforce was challenged with an international pandemic. We do not know specifically what the future is going to look like, but VR has reinvented itself over the last century to meet the ever-changing employment needs and challenges faced by individuals with disabilities and the demands of public policy. We hope learning from the past 100 years, VR will continue to incorporate new services and methods that will be relevant to the next 100 years to improve employment outcomes for eligible individuals with physical and mental disabilities.

George Dennehy performing Lead on VR
Celebrating the 100-year anniversary of vocational rehabilitation is a song is based on the words spoken by Justin Dart, “Lead on VR.” Justin Dart was a key and central figure in the passage of the ADA, which celebrates its 30-year anniversary this year. The Council of State Administrators of Vocational Rehabilitation partnered with CVS Health and The Hershey Company to produce an updated version of Dr. Ralph Pacinelli’s VR national anthem. Dr. Pacilleni spent over 50 years in the public VR profession, starting as a VR counselor in Pennsylvania and retiring as the RSA Regional Commissioner in Philadelphia. The song and video captures the spirit of VR and showcases VR clients from all across the country.
Performed by VR customer George Dennehy.