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Oklahoma Rehabilitation Services celebrates 30 years

Wednesday, July 05, 2023

OKLAHOMA CITY – With the stroke of a pen Governor David Walters signed legislation that created a brand-new state agency united to serve Oklahomans with disabilities.

On July 1, 1993, this legislation established the independent Department of Rehabilitation Services and transferred all present-day programs from the Oklahoma Department of Human Services.

“For 30 years, we have been carrying on with that mandate by educating students who are blind or deaf, helping adults with disabilities find employment and determining medical eligibility for qualified Oklahomans to receive Social Security disability benefits,” DRS Executive Director Melinda Fruendt said in an email to staff. “I am proud of the work we do and that the mission has not been forgotten through these years.”

DRS plans to recognize the anniversary later this fall. More details will be released nearer to that time.

Commission for Rehabilitation Services Vice Chair Wes Hilliard from Sulphur and Commissioner Teresa Flannery from Mustang are leaders on the DRS governing board.

The agency’s five program divisions offer 25 disability programs which served 184,082 people in 2022. 

DRS’ Vocational Rehabilitation and Services for the Blind and Visually Impaired operate career planning and employment programs that assist jobseekers in achieving independence through employment. As a result, clients become taxpayers who eliminate their need for government benefits. The divisions also network with Oklahoma employers and assist in hiring and training qualified workers with disabilities. 

The School for the Blind in Muskogee and School for the Deaf in Sulphur provide accredited academic and specialized education programs for students who attend classes on their campuses, as well as onsite consultation benefiting students who attend other public schools, their parents and educational staff.

DRS’s Disability Determination Division, which determines medical eligibility for Social Security disability benefits, has earned national honors for exceeding production and accuracy goals.

DRS’s early history began in 1897 when the first schools for the blind and deaf were established in Fort Gibson. The School for the Deaf relocated to Sulphur in 1908. The School for the Blind moved to Muskogee in 1911. In 1965, both schools became divisions of the Department of Public Welfare, later known as the Department of Institutions, Social and Rehabilitative Services and finally the Department of Human Services.

Oklahoma’s Commission for the Adult Blind, a predecessor of DRS’s Services for the Blind and Visually Impaired was established in 1917.  The program was transferred to the State Board of Vocational Education in 1947.

The first vocational rehabilitation program began in 1925 to assist World War I veterans returning home with war-related injuries.  In 1937, the vocational rehabilitation program was transferred to the State Board of Vocational Education.

Employment programs for jobseekers with disabilities offered today by DRS’s Vocational Rehabilitation and Services for the Blind and Visually Impaired were transferred to the Department of Public Welfare in 1968, which later became DHS. 

The agency’s Disability Determination Divisions determines medical eligibility for two Social Security Administration programs: Social Security Disability insurance (SSDI) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI). The first disability insurance provisions were enacted in 1954 as part of the federal Social Security Act.  Legislation passed in 1972 created a Social Security Administration program with eligibility based on medical disability, income and resources.

Original members of the Commission for Rehabilitation Services governing board were Bill Crawford from Sulphur, John E. Orr from Oklahoma City and Ernest Simpson from Checotah. 


For more information

Brett Jones, DRS Communications Officer

Cell: 405-651-4594