Celebrating 100 years of Vocational Rehabilitation in America


On June 2, 1920, President Woodrow Wilson signed into law the Smith-Fess Act, known as the National Civilian Rehabilitation Act. Two earlier congressional Acts had established vocational rehabilitation programs targeted to helping disabled World War I veterans transition to civilian life.

100 years of Vocational Rehabilitation logo

1917 — The Smith-Hughes Act established the federal-state program in vocational education, as well as created a Federal Board of Vocational Education with the authority and responsibility for vocational rehabilitation of disabled veterans.

1918 — The Smith-Sears Veterans Rehabilitation Act, also referred to as the Soldier’s Rehabilitation Act, expanded the role of the Federal Board of Vocational Education to provide services for vocational rehabilitation of veterans disabled during World War I.

The Civilian Rehabilitation Act of 1920 advanced those models to ultimately create a vocational rehabilitation program for all Americans with disabilities, and this year we are celebrating the 100th anniversary of that action.

The Civilian Rehabilitation Act established the federal/state vocational rehabilitation program and gave funds to states, with a 50-50 match, mainly for vocational services, guidance, training, occupational adjustment, and placement services, but only those with physical disabilities were eligible individuals at the outset, and they were not provided with any physical or psychological therapeutic services.

Scanned image of original Smith-Fess Act legislation

The current Rehabilitation Act governing these services was originally passed in 1973 and that Act is now part of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, passed in 2014. Title V of the 1973 Act was particularly significant for advancing the civil rights of individuals with disabilities, including the non-discrimination provisions of Section 504. Today students with learning disabilities may receive educational services under Section 504 when they do not qualify for special education services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. These services are critical to help students achieve success in school and transition into postsecondary education and/or employment.

Watch the Council of State Administrators of Vocational Rehabilitation’s (CSAVR) historical timeline of milestone moments in vocational rehabilitation.

The Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services’ Rehabilitation Services Administration paid tribute on June 2 to the 100th anniversary of the Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) program, an historic occasion, by showcasing how the VR program helped change the lives of students and adults with disabilities!