Newswise — A five-year, more than $930,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Education will help support graduate students pursuing a specialization in rehabilitation counseling at South Dakota State University. This is the third such grant professor Alan Davis has secured to train counselors in the master’s program to provide adjustment services to people with disabilities that help them find jobs.

Rehabilitation counselors serve clients with physical, psychiatric and sensory disabilities, ranging from spinal cord injuries or amputations to schizophrenia and bipolar disorder and blindness and deafness. “Whether these are congenital or acquired disabilities, what they have in common is the disability presents individuals with a significant impediment to employment,” said Davis, who is in SDSU’s Department of Counseling and Human Development.

More than 60 million American adults live with a disability, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Nearly half of disabled adults are age 65 or older. In 2018, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that employment rates for disabled adults increased to 19.1%.

A major objective of the grant is to reach American Indian students who wish to work with people with disabilities on the reservation and throughout the state. “We want the tribal groups in the state to benefit from the support our rehabilitation counseling graduates can provide,” he said, noting that South Dakota has six tribal rehabilitation programs.

Currently, Davis has 18 advisees, with four to five students graduating each year. “A person can now do the entire program using distance technology. It takes a little longer, but it can be done,” he said. Being able to take the classes online “makes this educational opportunity available to many people who would have had to forego any such intentions because of being place-bound.”

Supporting graduate students

During the next five years, the grant will provide tuition and fees for 16 students per semester. After completing their graduate degrees, the students agree to work at an agency that serves people with disabilities two semesters for every semester of support they received. To apply for funding, students should contact Davis at 605-688-4715.

The SDSU rehabilitation and mental health counseling graduate program has a 100% placement rate. “We’re very proud of that,” Davis said. Furthermore, every graduate who has sought national Commission on Rehabilitation Counselor certification has passed the examination. “These are high achievers,” he said. “With national certification, you can work anywhere in the United States.”

The rehabilitation specialization gained national accreditation through the Council on Rehabilitation Education in 2009. Since 2011, Davis has secured nearly $2.2 million in Department of Education funding to support students pursuing this specialization.

“Lots of government programs have come and gone, but this one has remained stable because it is getting the desired results,” said Davis, who benefited from the program while earning his master’s degree in rehabilitation counseling from the University of Kentucky.

Helping clients adapt

“It’s a very challenging profession,” he said, pointing to “the diversity of responsibilities and different threads of knowledge that have to be juggled and managed.”

He recalled seeing clients leave careers that were not very satisfying and “through the process of adapting to a disability find a more rewarding career that was closer to how they would see themselves.” After nearly four decades in the profession, Davis said, “This rehab adventure is satisfying for me—it’s an absolute good.”

Davis sees a “much higher level of public awareness about the needs of individuals with disabilities and the potential value of their contributions. Things have gotten much better in the course of my professional life, but that does not mean the task is complete by any means. One does encounter discrimination, misinformation and lost opportunities, so there’s still work to be done.”

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, which became operational in 1994, was a huge change for the country, he explained. “A large number of people predicted it would be unsuccessful; they felt the goals were too ambitious to be practical.”

However, Davis said, “It remains a shining example of how timely domestic legislation coupled with a strong sense of public will and commitment can be successful. It is the signature domestic achievement of President George H.W. Bush.”

The future for counseling students and clients with disabilities is bright, he predicted. “It is encouraging to see the quality of young people who are developing a career in disability service. The next generation of people with disabilities will be the best served. We are heading toward what I think will be a wonderful era in the history of disability education and awareness.”