Researchers have suggested that the Internet is changing vocational rehabilitation (VR) service delivery and that it can be incorporated into every phase of the rehabilitation process (Hampton & Houser, 2000; Patterson, 2000; Patterson, Knauss, Lawton, Raybould, & Oehlers, 2002; Riemer-Reiss, 2000). Only a few empirical studies have been conducted on this topic as it relates to VR (cf. Johnson, 2004; Patterson, 2002), although there is some evidence that counselors are using the Internet in the rehabilitation process (Patterson et al., 2002). Numerous empirical studies have been conducted in related fields such as vocational and career counseling (cf. Clark, Horan, Tompkins-Bjorkman, Kovalski, & Hackett, 2000; Harris-Bowlsbey, Riley Dikel, & Sampson, 2002; Malone, Miller, & Miller, 2004).
Several studies provide anecdotal evidence for how the Internet can be applied in every phase of the VR process, from customer application and intake to post-employment services and follow-up. Counselors could use the Internet to identify new referral sources and communicate with referral staff(Patterson et al., 2002). The Internet (e-mail and video conferencing) could be used to conduct intake interviews with customers, and later to discuss the results of individuals' assessments with them in terms of vocational potential and program eligibility (Riemer-Reiss, 2000).
Instant online access to information and resources regarding, for example, types of disabilities and other related information, assessment, and career guidance, could be useful to counselors during the assessment and employment-planning phase (Patterson, 2000; Patterson et al., 2002). Counselors and customers could develop the Individualized Plan for Employment (IPE) online (Riemer-Reiss, 2000), and use e-mail (among other methods) to communicate during the rehabilitation process (Patterson et al., 2002).
With respect to job development and placement, counselors could use the Internet to identify job vacancies and obtain information about potential employers; to share job leads and related information with customers via e-mail, Internet forums, and electronic mailing lists; and to provide employment support to groups of customers via Internet forums and chat rooms (Patterson et al., 2002; see also Patterson, 2000; Riemer-Reiss, 2000). Counselors and customers could use e-mail (among other methods) to periodically check in or follow up once the individual is employed (Riemer-Reiss, 2000).
Despite the Internet's potential to be used in every phase of the rehabilitation process, researchers (Hampton & Houser, 2000; Patterson, 2000; Riemer-Reiss, 2000) have suggested that the Internet will not replace the counselor. These suggestions are based on the assumption that personal, face-to-face contact with customers is necessary to build an effective counseling relationship and achieve rehabilitation success, and that technology compromises this connection. It should also be noted that these suggestions mostly reflect the perspectives of rehabilitation counselors, giving little consideration to VR customers. Indeed, not much is known about how VR customers experience Internet use in the rehabilitation process, their perspectives on this, and their preferences.
There is evidence that counselors are using the Internet in VR. Patterson (2002), for example, surveyed a convenience sample of 1,034 counselors from 34 state VR agencies about Internet access at work, Internet use in rehabilitation practice, and views on the Internet and the agency's Intranet (e-mail) system. Study results showed that counselors used the Internet mostly to identify potential jobs for customers (75.6%), to look up medical terms and conditions (70.3%), to identify state and local resources (69.4%), to look up occupational requirements or projections (68.8%), and to communicate with customers via e-mail (65.1%). Counselors were less likely to use the Internet to teach job skills to customers (39. …