New federal guidance is spelling out what qualifies as competitive integrated employment for people with disabilities.

The U.S. Department of Education issued an updated frequently asked questions document late last month that serves as guidance for the vocational rehabilitation program. The new information replaces guidance from 2017, the agency said.

Federal law requires that individuals with disabilities receiving services through vocational rehabilitation must be provided the opportunity to obtain competitive integrated employment.

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For a job to qualify under that standard, the guidance indicates that an employee with a disability must be paid at least minimum wage and compensated on par with workers without disabilities doing the same jobs. In addition, the position must be one that is “typically found in the community” where employees with disabilities interact with people without disabilities to the same extent as other workers. And, the job must offer opportunities for advancement much like those available to people without disabilities doing similar jobs.

The updated guidance is the culmination of three years of meetings with stakeholders, the Education Department said. Most of the questions the agency received related to the location where work is performed. Though the guidance offers clarity on this point, officials noted that the Education Department’s interpretation has been in place since the mid-1990s.

Vocational rehabilitation agencies should evaluate jobs on a case-by-case basis to assess whether they are “typically found in the community,” the document states. But, in order to satisfy that threshold, a position should be open to anyone who’s qualified no matter their disability status.

Similarly, case-specific evaluation should be made to determine if a job offers an appropriate level of interaction with people without disabilities. Telework, freelance and flexible work opportunities may satisfy this requirement since the guidance says that interaction does not have to be face-to-face.

Self-employment counts as competitive integrated employment as well, the document indicates.

Group settings like janitorial or landscaping crews may also be considered competitive integrated employment if they meet the requirements outlined. But, positions through the AbilityOne Program and other situations where individuals with disabilities are hired to “comply with a direct labor-hour ratio of individuals with disabilities required by federal law” likely would not qualify.

People with disabilities do not have to choose competitive integrated employment, the Education Department said, but that is the only route supported by the vocational rehabilitation program.

“We emphasize that, while there are a variety of employment types currently available for individuals with disabilities to choose from based on their individual preferences, only ‘competitive integrated employment’ and supported employment are allowable employment outcomes for purposes of the VR program,” the guidance states.

If individuals choose to pursue work that does not meet the criteria for competitive integrated employment, vocational rehabilitation agencies should refer them to appropriate community resources, according to the frequently asked questions document.

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