After graduating from Miami University, I went back to my hometown of Carbonale to begin a master’s degree program in rehabilitation counseling at Southern Illinois University. Like rehab counseling students across the country – every year – I began by learning about the foundational laws that brought the field of vocational rehabilitation into being. There are several of these laws but chief among them was the Smith-Fess Act of 1920, the law that established the Civilian Vocational Rehabilitation program. This program was set up to help injured soldiers returning from World War I to learn new skills so they could continue to have productive lives after their military service was done.
Eventually, the Smith-Fess Act of 1920 was replaced by the Vocational Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which established the nationwide state-federal vocational rehabilitation program that we have today. Through this program, millions of Americans with disabilities have been able to receive training leading toward employment careers. Many professionals in the field today – including those from Ohio – may not realize the vital role Ohio played in establishing this incredibly important system.
Simeon Fess, one of the bill’s champions, was from Ohio. He was a graduate of Ohio Northern University and in 1907 became the president of Antioch College in Yellow Springs. In 1912, Mr. Fess ran for Congress, sucessfully, thus beginning a remarkable legislative career in Washington. He would serve 5 terms in the House of Representatives and then 12 years in the United States Senate. Along the way, he pushed through a bill – the Smith – Fess Act of 1920 – that would change the employment landscape for Americans with disabilities for generations to come. 2020 marks the 100th anniversary of passage of the Smith-Fess Act.
Opportunities for Ohioans with Disabilities – Ohio’s state-federal VR program – put out a video hosted by our governor, honoring the life and accomplishments of Simeon Fess. It turns out Governor DeWine and Senator Fess have a lot in common: They are both from Yellow Springs, they both graduated from the Ohio Northern College of Law, and they both went on to serve in Congress and the Senate. In 1998, then-Senator DeWine was given the responsibility of reauthorizing the Vocational Rehabilitation Act, the law that began with Simeon Fess’ vision for a better life for Americans with Disabilities. Senator Fess passed away in 1936 and was laid to rest in Glen Forest Cemetary in Yellow Springs – directly across the street from Mike DeWine’s childhood home.
Please enjoy this short video and be proud of the role Ohio has played in making lives better for Americans with disabilities, through the generations.