The Rolling Reviewer: Show Me the Money! Wait, Bring It Back!

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Janelle EckhartFebruary 1, 2009 (San Diego) — The tide of economic prosperity seems to be in the ebb-phase of the cycle as insecurity and doubt flows swiftly in, and millions of job-seekers are finding themselves in strange and unsettling waters. For thousands of disabled individuals eager to enter the workforce -- whether for the first time or after a leave of absence -- the seas can be especially treacherous.

Concerns over qualifications, accommodations, and benefits, are daunting for us all, and must be tackled before anyone can confidently dive in. Fortunately, the information and peace of mind many of us need is right here, right now. Numerous government-funded programs and educational tools are in place to give us the support we need to lead successfully self-sufficient lives, while safe-guarding the programs and tools we need to survive.

Many of us toasted 2009 into being with a slightly crooked smile and a tentative cheer of hope, while we continued to stagger beneath the weight of the year past still doggedly clinging to our backs -- faint memories of stimulus checks spent haunting our nights, and incessant reminders of blooming discontent suffocating our days. Unemployment, in its many forms, has taken up residence in millions of homes nation-wide. Countless well-experienced workers have been thrown back into the mix with a new, somewhat greener, generation of folk just as hungry and driven to do the job. Competition is high; the scent of blood is in the air. It is tempting to believe that the best, most qualified, applicants surface to the top each time to claim their rightly-earned victories through hard work and determination. Sadly though, this "survival of the fittest" scenario often times has less to do with a potential hire's merits than politics and discrimination.

In 2005, a census revealed that of the 291.1 million people in the population, 54.4 million (18.7%) had some level of disability. While the types and severity of disability varies tremendously in any population, we must take into account that almost 20% of the American populous claims some degree of handicap -- this percentage only accounts for individuals who've been properly diagnosed, and leads me to suspect the true number is much higher. When we relate this staggering percentage to The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimate that the unemployment rate in December, 2008, reached 7.2%, it may suggest that a large population of disabled Americans are also finding themselves unemployed and looking for work. In many cases though, it is not as simple as finding a job; gaining employment can actually compromise many Americans' safety and wellbeing.

The Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) programs are managed by the Social Security Administration (SSA), and are intended to compensate individuals for a degree of income they've lost due to some level of handicap. According to Alpha One: a Center for Independent Living, based in Maine, 10.6 million Americans received SSDI ($12,756 annually) or SSI ($7,149 annually), or a combination of the two programs ($8,567 annually), in 2007. When the three baseline yearly incomes provided by these programs are averaged and compared to the national poverty level for the same year ($10,210), we see that it is about $721 below the national level, at $9490.66. Another disheartening fact is that many government-funded services like Medicare and In-Home-Supportive-Services (IHSS) strictly prohibit clients from retaining assets; even a relatively small amount of personal savings may compromise services. The prospect of millions of citizens exposed to a unique degree of vulnerability, coupled by a forced dependence on substandard programs and services, is grim. People with disabilities across the country have refused to resign themselves to that prospect, however, and our government is responding accordingly.

Many programs are finally in place to offer individuals the assistance they need to find, gain, and retain, employment without the fear of being penalized for doing so. And I'm happy to point out that all of these services may first be investigated online. Each state and local government has particular programs that vary in funding and restrictions, but SSA itself provides key plans that compliment benefits and encourage us to find employment.

Will Work for RespectOne such program is called Ticket to Work. By obtaining a "ticket," individuals who receive SSDI or SSI are given more freedom to choose employment services, vocational rehabilitation services, and other supportive service to aid in finding a job. Using the ticket also ensures that SSA will not conduct a continuing disability medical review during that period. The ticket gives you access to "employment networks" (EN) of state-run programs and other approved private organizations and government agencies. The EN you commit to will help you create an Individual Work Plan (IWP) that details your job goals. Once you have met the specifications of your IWP, including earning desired wages to meet your goals, the EN may submit forms for reimbursement. This program provides a supportive and goal-oriented environment to not only encourage you to fulfill ambitions, but to help you maintain them as well.

SSA has also coordinated a series of programs to meet specific goals and concerns as working people with disabilities face various stages of employment. The Trial Work Period (TWP) allows individuals to accumulate nine months of work experience before their SSDI benefits may be adjusted. These nine months are not required to be consecutive, and they are monitored by the individual's submission of his or her work activity. Once the TWP is completed, an Extended Period of Eligibility (EPE) begins. For thirty-six consecutive months, you may receive your full SSDI benefits if you earn less than SSA's substantial gainful activity level, and your disability does not change. Benefits are suspended during the months your earnings are greater than the cut-off point, but they may be reinstated without filing a new application. Numerous other services also exist, and some may be particularly relevant to individuals with sight and/or hearing impairments. Medicare and Medicaid coverage is maintained with little change in the majority of cases, as well, and some individuals may be eligible for state assistance if a share-of-cost is instituted. Surely, these programs are not perfect and cannot possibly address each client's unique circumstances, but they do provide the security of knowing we may strive to better our lives and contribute in meaningful and productive ways.

In October, of 2000, the US Commission on Civil Rights published an extensive study entitled "Sharing the Dream: Is the ADA accommodating All?" It assessed the goals, progress, shortcomings, and failures, the ADA experienced during the ten years since it was signed into action by President Bush, in 1990. One important observation the Commission made was that a shift has occurred "from a medical/charity model for society's treatment of individuals with disabilities to a civil rights model." At last, people with disabilities are beginning to be understood as members of a minority group rather than as damaged beings to be dealt with. The issues we face on a social and economic level are legitimate civil rights violations that must be faced with honesty and respect. By performing the tasks we choose, and by excelling in the fields we enjoy, Americans with disabilities will prove with their actions that they too have a place in the market. This is one instance when we need our money to speak louder than our words.

A list of sites and sources I used to write this piece, and return to often for updates and information: Provides quick and easy access to comprehensive information about disability programs, services, laws and benefits. Has a link to ADA information and studies. -- "Sharing the Dream: Is ADA Accommodating All?" --a 2000 comprehensive report on ADA progress and issues. -- A summary guide to employment supports for individuals with disabilities under the Social Security Disability Insurance and Supplemental Security Income programs. -- Bureau of Labor Statistics

Janelle graduated last year from UCSD with a BA in English literature. She is currently feeling out her place in "the real world," while simultaneously devising a formula for Guinness-flavored lip gloss. Janelle is a native of this most beautiful of counties, and is absolutely bent on showing it off to the world: bumpy sidewalks and all. And if she knows anything, it is this: bucket lists are for procrastinators--live as though you