October is National Employment of People with Disabilities Month. It has been for years. And for years the unemployment rate of people with disabilities has remained around 70%. Why aren't we working? Often the answer is, "I want to work but I can't afford to lose my benefits." I can understand that having lived on those benefits myself 24 years ago. It's really hard to give up those benefits. After all, it is just so nice to live on $530 a month and spend 70% of that on an apartment that is subsidized by the Federal government in the form of a Section 8 housing voucher. It's really tough to give up the additional few hundred a month you get to support your children. And let's not forget all those bon bons you eat all day courtesy of food stamps. Think of all the money you save not having to support an automobile of your own when you can wait at a bus stop in 100+ degrees or wait four hours for Dial-A-Ride to show up. Yeah, that's the life, all right! Poverty - we all love rolling in it. Well, not all of us. I don't. I never did. And the idea of "losing my benefits" in order to go to work 24 years ago was no decision at all. It wasn't a math problem to be solved. It was an ethics problem. Regardless of what I would "give up", going back to work and earning my own living was the only option on my radar screen. I don't have a right to sit home and collect benefits that other working people pay for in the form of taxes. I can work and pay my own way, and I have a personal responsibility to my family, my community and my country to do so. It's that simple.
Some of you say that's not fair. You believe you paid into the Social Security system when you were working so you're "entitled" to those benefits and are only getting your own money back when you go on disability. Using that logic, anyone who drives a car should go out right now and get into an accident. After all, they've been paying car insurance all these years. They're "entitled" to get their money back, right? Still others of you insist that you simply cannot work because of your disability. That is true for some people. But with all the people I have worked with over the years who go onto Supplemental Security Income (SSI) or Social Security Disability Benefits (SSDI), I contend that the VAST MAJORITY do not need to go onto disability, at least not permanently. Many of you, in fact, are forced to apply by your insurance company, your employer, the welfare system, health care practitioners and others who think they're doing you a favor. They're not. It's a black hole. And you're letting them control your life when you could be controlling it yourself. Consider these statistics about SSI / SSDI*:
If you're among those who are worried about Social Security benefits being available when you reach retirement age, maybe you should be worrying about the number of working age people with disabilities who are depleting the retirement funds. Whenever I write stuff like this I get calls from people who are angry about my insensitivity to what life is really like for people with disabilities. I'm always amazed by which of you get mad at me over this because it's usually those of you who probably do need to be on SSI/SSDI. You're not the ones I'm talking about. You may truly be in your recovery stage and need to be on those benefits for a few years until you build up better health and endurance. You may have a terminal illness and simply do not have a future in the work world. You ARE the people this system was originally designed to protect. But MOST of you are on this system because of other barriers not at all related to your disability. I'd really like to get letters from you explaining why you think I'm wrong in my assertions that you SHOULD be working. Better yet, when you get your Ticket to Work during the next several months, make an appointment [with a disability employment specialist and discuss how you can go about] getting out of poverty and supporting yourself in a manner I know you can. Let's take on the challenge together. I dare you to dream. I dare you to work!!!
*These statistics are found in a report published by the United States General Accounting Office in January, 2001 entitled, "SSA Disability: Other Programs May Provide Lessons for Improving Return-to-Work Efforts." Doc. GAO-01-153. Visit GAO's website at www.gao.gov.
This editorial was written by Susan Webb, Director of Employment Services at the Arizona Bridge to Independent Living. Printed in the October 2001 Edition of The Bridge.
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