Western Oregon University’s (WOU) Research and Resource Center with Deaf* communities (RRCD) has received a $1 million grant from the federal Rehabilitation Service Administration (RSA). This grant supports WOU’s Rehabilitation and Mental Health Counseling (RMHC) program, which trains people to facilitate employment, independent living, community integration and more for individuals who are Deaf or have disabilities.
The grant began this month and runs through Sept. 30, 2025. RRCD will receive $200,000 annually to support RMHC students with their tuition, training and professional development and recruitment efforts to bring in more students from underserved populations. This grant is in addition to a $1 million grant received last year to support these initiatives, and WOU is one of the few institutions to receive both five-year grants.
Joyce Contreras is an RMHC student who received funding from last year’s RSA grant. Through the grant’s support, Contreras learned she has an interest in vocational rehabilitation and plans to pursue a career in the field. “If it wasn’t for the RSA grant, I do not know how I would have made it through financially, but the support from my cohort and the RMHC staff has helped me thrive in the program,” she said. “Beginning in winter term, I will be doing my internship with the Albany and Corvallis vocational rehabilitation offices, which I look forward to because there is so much I am interested in learning from vocational rehabilitation work in helping individuals with disabilities find employment.”
Associate Professor Denise Thew Hackett, RMHC program coordinator, and Chad A. Ludwig, RRCD director, both deaf, are two of the leaders in WOU’s programs, which aim to narrow the gap of vocational rehabilitation and mental health counselors nationwide. The RMHC’s rehabilitation counselor with deaf track is one of only three in the country, and the RMHC program overall is one of only four in the Pacific Northwest. The deaf track specialty has an online option that is delivered in American Sign Language to address a significant national shortage of counselors with this specialty. There is a hybrid model for the general track with Saturday face-to-face meetings at WOU:Salem (resuming when pandemic conditions allow) and online in between to meet the needs of working professionals and rural students.
RSA was created to address the current national shortage of qualified rehabilitation counselors with a master’s degree. RSA scholars are required to do two years of service payback for each year of financial support in state vocational rehabilitation and qualified agencies that contract with them. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (2019) outlined a positive projected job outlook for 2020-23, and in Oregon, at least 40 VRC positions will need to be filled over the next three years due to retirement alone. Similar data is shown nationally, and even more so with specialty training to serve individuals who are Deaf, Hard of Hearing or DeafBlind.
WOU’s RMHC program has had a retention rate of nearly 100% for the past several years and 100% of the graduates have been hired within six months of completing their degree. This grant will enable RMHC to support more students with their education expenses, professional expenses such as attending professional conferences/training, and prepare them for employment in vocational rehabilitation.
RRCD is in WOU’s College of Education and has been supporting students in fields like interpreter training, deaf and hard of hearing education, and rehabilitation counseling for more than 50 years. For more information about the RMHC, please visit www.wou.edu/rrcd/rmhc.