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Diagnosed: Work And Benefits - Considerations For People With Disabilities In The Workforce

portrait of Bryson in his customized wheelchair
JoLynne Lyon
Center for Persons with Disabilities

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, just under 19 percent of people with disabilities are employed, compared with 66 percent of people without disabilities. Policymakers and educators want to change that.

Over the past five years, many Utah universities launched programs aimed at preparing young people with disabilities to enter the workforce. Some examples are Aggies Elevated at Utah State University and the Utah Neurodiversity Workforce Program, which began at the University of Utah. But while many people without disabilities look to work as a way to gain health insurance benefits, some workers with disabilities worry they may lose health insurance coverage if they start work, or go back to it.

"I was pretty excited to start an internship," said Bryson Carpenter, an intern at the Center for Persons with Disabilities at Utah State University. "I’ve never had a job before so it was exciting to learn how to do things and get experience."

When Bryson began his internship, he had some things to think about that most employees don’t need to consider. He needed some assistive technology or specialized equipment that helped him operate a computer, as well as use an iPad at eye level from his wheelchair. And with the help of some devices and customized tweaking, he got it.

He also checked on one other thing: how his internship might affect his benefits.

"We kind of already knew that the job would affect my benefits in some way, " he said, "So before I started getting paid we decided to talk to a benefits counselor. She educated us."

“I think it’s very understandable that individuals are fearful of losing their benefits, " said Noreen Roeca, Ticket to Work coordinator in Utah. “We really want people to know that there are work incentives available and that they can learn about them and make a good choice about whether employment is right for them, and employment at what level. The truth is that there’s really help available.”

Before we go much farther, here’s a quick primer: If you’re unable to work and you qualify for Social Security benefits, those will help you cover the cost of living at the poverty level. Medicaid provides health insurance coverage for people on social security.

So say you have a chronic illness. You want to work, but what happens if you lose the Social Security benefit, and then discover you are too sick to keep a steady job? Do you lose your health insurance and your income?

“There are special rules with Social Security and with Medicaid to allow individuals to go back to work without losing their benefits all at once, and to make good fiscal decisions for themselves to go to work,” said Jolene Wyler, director of the Utah Work Incentive Planning Services in Salt Lake City. “The only reason why they may go off benefits immediately is if they had not reported their income beforehand, and they’ve used the work incentives already, potentially unbeknownst to them.”

Here’s Noreen again.

“Under the ticket to work program, an individual can choose a provider that will help them return to work or their pursuit of employment. And during the time that an individual is engaged in the effort to go back to work—so they might be in training, they might be doing some apprenticeship or some other work-related activities to help them prepare for work—during that time, the Social Security Administration will not conduct a medical review on that individual. And that’s really important for many people because what it means is that they will continue to receive their social security check and not have to go through a medical review.”

So that helps people if they’re just getting started, but what happens if they are working full-time, and suddenly have to stop? Here’s Jolene:

“If individuals work their way off of benefits, there is a work incentive to be able to allow them to get back on benefits if they have to stop working because of their disability.”

Still, people with disabilities have some added steps if they wish to go back to work. Everyone that was interviewed for this story said they’d encourage job seekers with disabilities to get some good, meaningful advice to make sure they keep their benefits.

Most often, the clients Jolene and benefit specialists see are referred through the Department of Workforce Services. Some also are referred through private companies who work with people with disabilities.

“Once they meet with a benefit specialist, we generally meet with an individual two times," she said. "The first time is an intake appointment, where we ask them a lot of questions… Generally, two weeks later we meet with them again. And in the meantime, we have done research with social security and with other benefits. And we develop a report for them. And then, when we meet with them a second time, we will go over that report with them, help them understand how work affects their benefits, and we’ll also teach them how to report their earnings to social security, and also to Department of Workforce Services, and to housing, so that they can make sure that everyone is on the same page together when they go to work.”

So there’s meetings, paperwork and reporting. But Noreen says it offers an advantage that people on Social Security and Medicaid alone don’t have.

“The average payment for a social security beneficiary is just over $1,000 a month, and if you compare that to the federal poverty limit, it’s right there. And so what we do know is that a person who is living solely on Social Security disability benefit is living in poverty. And so if they do seek out avenues to learn about their options for employment… That is life changing for many of them.”

With many thanks to Dane Braddy for providing voice talent.

Music Credit: Rotisserie Graveyard by Dr. Turtle.

Support for Diagnosed has been provided in part by our members and Intermountain Budge Clinic, a multi-specialty clinic offering care for every member of your family in one location. Details found here.