Native Americans with Disabilities in Washington State may be eligible for Tribal Vocational Rehabilitation Services

Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) is a service provided to help someone with a disability get ready for work, access a job, maintain a job, and more. The right to VR services is guaranteed under federal law, the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which grew from regulations in place since the Smith-Fess Act of 1920 established the first employment protections for people with disabilities.

The right to Tribal Vocational Rehabilitation (TVR) is newer and offers an option for some people who are members of a federally or state-recognized Native American Tribe.

Washington State’s Department of Services for the Blind (DSB), which offers VR to individuals who are blind or visually impaired, maintains a website page to help people find and contact Tribal Vocational Rehabilitation Organizations in many regions of Washington State.

Washington’s Division of Vocational Rehabilitation (DVR) also maintains a website page to help clients find information about Tribal Vocational Rehabilitation Programs.

TVR provides culturally supportive services

Tribal VR can provide services that are culturally supportive. Federal law (34 CFR, Subsection 371.41) allows AIVRS projects to include “expenditures for services reflecting the cultural background of the American Indians being served, including treatment provided by native healing practitioners who are recognized as such by the tribal vocational rehabilitation program when the services are necessary to assist an individual with disabilities to achieve his or her vocational rehabilitation objective.”

Christopher Zilar, who directs the Spokane Tribe Vocational Rehabilitation Program, provided information for this article. He shares an experience to help spread understanding about what cultural awareness can look like:

“In one case, a client felt the need for healing for his addiction to alcohol. His TVR counselor was able to set him up with a locally known spiritual healer. The counselor was able to provide smudge. Lastly, when the client asked the counselor to pray with him, the counselor was able to do so. This was a perfectly acceptable approach to helping the client stay on track with his employment goal, and yet not something one would experience in a traditional DVR setting.”

Washington is a leader in providing TVR Tribal Vocational Rehabilitation was not built into federal disability protections until 1992, when a section of the Rehabilitation Act was amended to establish American Indian Vocational Rehabilitation Services (AIVRS), which serves 91 programs in 25 states. The states with the most AIVRS programs are Alaska (12), Washington State (11), and Oklahoma (10). For a United States map and further information, visit

Below is a map that shows many of the tribes in Washington State. Of 574 federally recognized tribes, 29 are in WA State. Many of the state’s larger tribes have their own VR programs, and some smaller tribes belong to a cooperative of tribes that serve a sizeable area. Many AIVRS projects will serve members of any federally or state-recognized tribe.

List of Indian reservations in Washington

Historical Note: The long process that resulted in the establishment of AIVRS began in 1972, when Navajo Nation requested funds and authority from Arizona State Department of Labor to provide VR services to their tribal members.

As part of federal disability rights and protections, AIVRS programs now function much like state-run VR programs. Eligible participants build a plan for employment, and VR services are individualized to meet the person’s interests, strengths, and goals.

Here are a few unique aspects of AIVRS:

  • State-run programs, such as Washington’s DVR, are guaranteed funding and federal dollars fluctuate based on the state’s population. AIVRS projects must apply for five-year federal grants, and dollars are awarded for the grant period based on the application. An AIVRS project must re-apply every five years and is not guaranteed a grant.
  • Unlike programs that are contained within state borders, AIVRS projects may define their own service areas that consider reservation boundaries and/or ancestral lands. Service areas may overlap and clients living in areas where programs overlap may be served by overlapping programs. 
  • AIVRS projects only serve American Indians who are members of a federal or state recognized tribe.

TVR is unlikely to put you on a wait list

Order of Selection refers to a waiting list that goes into effect when there aren’t enough VR resources to meet the need. Washington’s DVR often operates with an Order of Selection process, which organizes applicants based on the severity of their disability condition and when they applied.  

Order of Selection is extremely rare among AIVRS projects, with no AIVRS projects in Washington State operating with a waiting list in Summer 2022. Tribal clients waiting for services from state agencies can request help from AIVRS, and professionals working for the state also can refer tribal clients to AIVRS.

Cultural awareness is key

The impetus for Navajo Nation to begin their own project 50 years ago remains the same for many today. AIVRS project counselors often live and/or work on the reservation. They understand the public transportation challenges their clients face. They know the local entertainment, shopping, social service, and employment opportunities that are available to their clients. Most importantly, they have a better idea of what cultural needs their clients might have.

For example, one TVR specialist recalls an appointment he supported for a Native client when an uninformed VR counselor attempted to show respect by discussing the local Pow Wow and said, “I really love the costumes you wear during the dances.”

The AIVRS counselor was able to correct the error and support the Native client by clarifying that Native Americans dance attire is not a costume: “What they wear is sacred, admired, maybe passed down through many generations. We call them regalia.” 

To learn more about Tribal rights under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, as amended, search for “Tribal” throughout a downloadable transcript of the law.

Long COVID May Cause Disability and Eligibility for Services

Some people infected by the SARS-CoV-2 virus experience long-term symptoms—called Long COVID. If lasting symptoms significantly impact a person’s life, their ability to work, or their access to school, disability laws are in place to protect and support them.

Among federal laws that support disability rights are the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (which includes Section 504), and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Note that Part B of the IDEA supports special education services for ages 3-21, and Part C provides early interventions for children birth-3.

Disability protections are also provided by Section 1557 of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services with the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice provide guidance on the website: Guidance on “Long COVID” as a Disability Under the ADA, Section 504, and Section 1557.

The federal Administration for Community Living (ACL) published a resource that is a place to begin learning about where support is available: How ACL’s Disability and Aging Networks Can Help People with Long COVID. For people whose work is impacted by Long COVID, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy provides information related to job accommodations, employee benefits, worker’s rights, and more.

If a student with Long COVID is impacted, they can be evaluated to determine eligibility for school-based services. For students already identified for school-based services, Long COVID might entitle the student to additional or adjusted services. The Office of Special Education and Rehabilitation Services (OSERS), issued a Fact Sheet July 26, 2021, explaining the rights of children who may have a disability condition related to Long COVID. The rest of this article focuses on protections for children and students.

Section 504 support

Section 504 is part of the Rehabilitation Act and includes protections for individuals accessing a public space, service, or program. A person of any age with a disability has the right to accommodations and modifications if their disability condition significantly impacts a major life activity, such as breathing, walking, learning…. Section 504 guarantees equitable access to opportunities publicly available to people without disabilities. If COVID infection has caused a disability condition because of its lasting impacts, then Section 504 protections may apply.

In school, a Section 504 Plan provides a student with support in general education. Criteria are broad and determined if the student has a disability condition that impacts any aspect of their educational access. If so, the student is eligible for support to meet their needs.

For example, a student with Long COVID might have impacts to their breathing, walking, attention span, or stamina. They may need accommodations for a late start, a shortened school day, a reduced workload, or a place to rest while at school. If mental health is impacted, they may need social-emotional or behavioral supports to continue accessing their general education curriculum and class spaces.

School-based IEP services

If evaluation determines that Long COVID impacts a student (ages 3-21) to such a degree that special education and related services are necessary, then the student may be eligible for an Individualized Education Program (IEP). One eligibility category for IEP services, for example, is Other Health Impairment (OHI). For a full list of eligibility categories see PAVE’s article: IDEA: The Foundation of Special Education.

An educational evaluation determines:

  1. Is there a disability?
  2. Is there significant educational impact?
  3. Does the student require Specially Designed Instruction and/or Related Services?

If Long COVID has created a condition in which all three criteria are met, then the student receives services with an IEP. If the student already has an IEP and a COVID infection has created new barriers to learning, then a new evaluation may be needed to determine what additional services the IEP team can consider.

Here are a few examples of how Specially Designed Instruction (SDI) and Related Services might be included in an IEP to support a student with Long COVID:

  • A teacher provides instruction differently to support a student whose ability to focus is significantly impacted by Long COVID. Progress toward a skill of attention/focus is tracked to see if there is improvement or if something about the teaching strategy needs an adjustment.
  • A teacher helps a student learn emotional coping strategies after Long COVID caused severe anxiety and mood dysregulation. A goal is set to track progress on this social emotional learning (SEL) skill.
  • A physical education teacher provides a specially designed PE program for a student with Long COVID whose symptoms get worse with physical exertion. Goals are set, and progress is monitored. See PAVE’s article about Adapted PE.
  • A student with lingering physical symptoms of COVID receives physical or occupational therapy as a Related Services through the IEP.
  • A student with psychological impacts from the illness receives counseling as a Related Service on the IEP.

Of course, this is a short and incomplete list of possibilities. IEP teams are responsible to develop programming that is individualized to meet a student’s unique and specific needs. Evaluation data is critical in development of the services and programming, and families have the right to request an Independent Educational Evaluation (IEE) at district expense if they don’t believe the district’s own data is accurate or comprehensive enough to develop an appropriate IEP.

The primary entitlement of a student receiving school-based services is FAPE—Free Appropriate Public Education. FAPE means that services enable progress that is appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances. If Long COVID has disabled a student’s ability to access school appropriately, then they may be entitled to FAPE. The services that provide FAPE are determined individually and by a team that includes family participants.

Early intervention services

Health officials are reporting developmental delays related to COVID infections. Young children, Birth-3, who have been ill with COVID and have ongoing symptoms may be eligible for disability protections from the IDEA Part C, which provides federal funds for early intervention services delivered through an Individualized Family Service Plan (IFSP). According to the OSERS document about Long COVID:

“A child suspected of having a disability should be referred as soon as possible, but in no case more than seven days, after the child has been identified. With parental consent, a timely, comprehensive, multidisciplinary evaluation must be completed, and if the child is determined eligible, a child and family assessment must be conducted to determine the appropriate early intervention services and supports for the child and family.”

Resources to help you

PAVE provides resource collections to support families of children in various ages and stages:

PAVE’s Family-to-Family Health Information Center (F2F) provides direct assistance for questions related to health and wellness, insurance, and access to medical services. For questions about early intervention or school-based services, our Parent Training and Information (PTI) staff can help. Click Get Help from our home page at to request individualized support.

COVID-19 and Disability: Access to Work has Changed

By Kyann Flint

The world of work is generally not built for the disability community. Federal laws guarantee the right to work and the right to accommodations, but modern-day jobs do not always give each person an opportunity to succeed. Many workers with disabilities must try harder to make the job fit, and some employers see accommodations as extra expenses or special rather than an investment for equal opportunity.

I have experienced this firsthand. My first employer told me that because of my legal blindness, he did not know what he would have me do. No empathy. No innovation. No Universal Design.

Universal Design is a plan for buildings, products, or environments that are accessible to all people, regardless of age, disability, or other factors. Universal Design accommodates everyone, reducing the need for anyone to need or request accommodations. My own opportunity to build a career was boosted by having a boss who is also disabled at an agency that incorporates Universal Design into our everyday work.

COVID-19 has reshaped many jobs and created opportunities for employers to see how Universal Design can benefit everyone. For example, the disability community has long advocated for work-from-home. Until organizations were driven by the need to keep everyone safe, the request for this accommodation did not seem like a good choice for many employers. Many now see the benefit of a work-from-home option.  

Because I cannot drive, working from home benefited me before the home office became common during COVID-19. My colleagues and I were already comfortable with Zoom and knew how to help our community adapt to using that online meeting platform and other tools to support the need for almost everyone to work from home.

Clearly, working from home is not just a disability accommodation but also provides access to jobs for more people. This change represents a benefit of Universal Design.

Curb cuts are another example of Universal Design. Curb cuts are built with wheelchair accessibility in mind, but they benefit everyone, making it easier for parents with strollers, people with leg injuries and anyone who might trip or fall because of a misstep over a curb. Ramps, elevators, and accessible websites are other examples of innovations that support everyone.

Better access for everyone means fewer people need to ask for accommodations. People with disabilities feel included. In a world built with Universal Design, disability is not a problem. When society gives people with disabilities access to work, we are all better off.

A lesson learned during COVID-19 is that accessibility is an investment, not an expense. Universal Design an everyday thing that creates equity and inclusion for all.

About the author: Kyann Flint, Director of Accessibility for Wandke Consulting, is a passionate advocate for the disability community. As a person with a disability, she strives to educate society on how social barriers, like ignorance and stereotypes, limit the disability community. Kyann loves coffee and travel.