Disabled face multiple barriers to employment

Disabled face multiple barriers to employment

Russell Sykes

In recent decades, there has been an increased expectation that individuals with disabilities should have the opportunity to work. This is evident in the passage of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunities Reconciliation Act and Ticket to Work legislation. State and local governments are encouraged to develop supports and services to enhance employment access and job retention for persons with disabilities.

Helping people secure and retain jobs and manage their money effectively is a difficult undertaking in general for all workers with minimal work experience and skill deficits, but it can be even harder for those who may have physical or mental health barriers to overcome and for those with learning disabilities, all of whom may need intensive case management and often special work accommodations. Here we look at three areas of helping people with borderline disabilities and other barriers to employment move toward self-sufficiency: 1) the importance of properly assessing an individual’s barriers/needs, 2) case management and work readiness/accommodation efforts, and 3) the importance of financial literacy and additional economic supports and services to augment wages. These individuals need our help in order to join the economic mainstream.

Individuals with disabilities are far more commonly poor, whether they are working or collecting government benefits. They are subject to high-cost rent-to-own operations, tax refund loans and “sponging” boyfriends and family members. Individuals with disabilities who receive government benefits often don’t have bank accounts, are unaccustomed to using checkbooks and are often behind in their rent and utility payments. In one case, a woman with a cognitive disability did not discriminate well and unscrupulous acquaintances would enter her apartment unchallenged and take her Social Security checks. In that case it was necessary to make a referral to Adult Protective Services. Adult Services obtained secure housing for her, a representative payee and direct deposit for her Social Security checks. Such situations are not uncommon.

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Assessing Barriers/Needs

There is growing recognition of the existence and effects of “hidden” or unidentified barriers to self-sufficiency. These barriers are recognized to be more prevalent within the long-term welfare population and typically influence many areas of an individual’s life. The individual may be unaware of the barrier and/or its effects. An individual with an undiagnosed math calculation learning disability will likely have difficulties managing a household budget and monitoring expenditures. The New York State Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance is developing a comprehensive screening tool to be used with long-term TANF recipients that will preferably be conducted in conjunction with a home visit. More contextual information is revealed through home visits by observing home conditions and family interactions than is often obtained in office visits. The screening tool will explore mental health problems, learning disabilities, health problems, legal, family and housing issues. It also contains a series of financial resource questions intended to determine whether the household has any unmet material needs to be addressed:

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1. Do you currently use a monthly budget?

* Yes

* No

2. Do you have ongoing expenses that go unpaid?

* Yes

* No

3. Do you have a good credit history?

* Yes

* No

4. If your monthly funds do not cover all of your expenses, what does not get paid or what do you cut back on?

5. Do you run out of food before the end of the month?

* Yes

* No

6. Do your children have clothes for all seasons?

* Yes

* No

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7. Do you have clothing that is appropriate for job interviews and work?

* Yes

* No

The worker will make referrals for services, e.g., WIC, VITA sites for EITC application, food stamps, community agencies, food pantries/cooperatives based on affirmative answers to the screening questions.

The New York state OTDA is a conducting a small pilot project in two large local districts on the use of a screening tool for learning disabilities and the impact they have on job tasks. The screen was adapted from one developed by the Alabama Department of Rehabilitation Services. The New York state pilots are being done in conjunction with job readiness classes to help participants manage their paychecks and develop household budgets. Preliminary results are very promising.

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The costs of assessing hidden barriers such as learning disabilities or mental health problems can be very high, but remediation and instruction costs, along with skills training, are worth the investment because of the long-range pay off.

Case Management and Work Readiness Efforts

In four New York state counties, there are Work Limitations Coordinators whose primary role is to assist TANF recipients with disabilities to enroll in vocational rehabilitation services. These workers act as case managers for individuals awaiting vocational evaluations and work placements. A great deal of the case management involves financial and benefits counseling as individuals facing the effects of disabilities are challenged to coordinate many areas of their lives. One young man who suffers severe social anxiety due to childhood bullying received a settlement from a car accident. Family members have depleted the settlement and the young man now requires a great deal of guidance to apply for student financial aid so he can attend post-secondary training and progress toward self-sufficiency. Instructions to fill out the forms need to be repeated often and cause him a great deal of frustration. The Work Limitations Coordinator provides guidance and encouragement so the young man can begin a life of his own.

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This is a typical occurrence for individuals with limitations who are in poverty programs. The assistance of case managers and “service navigators” provide with the patient, individual attention needed to move toward economic independence. Investment in such services will also likely produce significant returns for those involved and the community at large.

Financial Literacy/Asset Development

The best path to economic success is to have reliable income, financial literacy and a plan for asset development. Unfortunately, many low-income households are struggling to secure a reliable and living wage and have yet to focus on financial literacy and asset development. Low-income households are not the only families struggling with financial management and asset development.

In 2005, the national personal savings rate in the United States fell to minus.5 percent, the first time at a negative rate since the Great Depression. Estimates are between 9 percent and 35 percent of Americans are “unbanked,” with higher estimates for low-income families.

In addition, low-income households often use predatory lenders who charge high interest rates such as pay day loans and rent to own. Often this is because they are unbanked and/or have poor credit histories and are unable to secure loans at traditional banking institutions. More than 25 percent of eligible low-income working families do not apply for or receive the federal earned income tax credit, the single biggest anti-poverty program in the nation. Many do not apply because of the cost of filing a return. For many low-income families that do apply for EITC, they hire a paid preparer and often forfeit additional money by securing a refund anticipation loan from the preparer. The Children’s Defense Fund Winter 2006 Report found that one in four EITC families purchased a refund anticipation loan, meaning EITC recipients lost $173 million in the preparation fees and an additional $34 million in rapid refund loan fees, money that could have been used to purchase necessary items or build savings.

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If low-income households are to secure financial success, policy-makers and programs must work harder to provide financial literacy to families. Information on the real cost of “rent to own,” predatory loans and check-cashing fees should be provided to low-income youth and families. Expansion of the EITC and Volunteer Income Tax sites to provide free tax preparation is essential to help families bridge the gap to self-sufficiency. Expanding use of the Use of Individual Development Accounts and Plans of Self-Support that disregard income for specified periods of time could also help build assets of more low-income working families on assistance. Stable income, financial literacy and building savings and other assets are necessary if low-income families are to achieve economic success and a better future for their children.

Financial Literacy For Individuals with Disabilities

A common barrier to employment for individuals with disabilities is the fear of loss of benefits. Jane H. participated in a New York State Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance-sponsored program at Goodwill Industries of Western New York in Buffalo. The program serves individuals with various types of disabilities, including learning disabilities. Jane was a single mother of three children and was a TANF recipient. With both a physical and a learning disability, she had difficulty securing employment. She was in debt and was concerned that any job for which she qualified would not pay enough, but would reduce her benefits. Although skeptical, she attended a self-sufficiency seminar provided at Goodwill Industries. As a result of her active participation, Jane decided to contact a local consumer credit counseling agency to consolidate her debts. She also connected with New York State Vocational and Educational Services for Individuals with Disabilities for vocational rehabilitation services to secure a full-time job. Within a few weeks, Jane contacted her counselor, furious with the decrease in her cash benefits. Unable to secure a bus pass and pay her bills, Jane was convinced that leaving her job to return to welfare was her best choice.

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Jane’s team of case managers met with her and the local department of social services to identify and manage her financial concerns. Jane was encouraged to follow a budget and keep a strict record of her finances. She remains gainfully employed with the help of transitional supports and has a savings plan. Recently, Jane contacted her case managers for help working with a local housing agency to secure funding to purchase a house. Step-by-step interventions and education succeeded in helping this individual through the financial adjustments of going to work. There is growing acceptance that collecting government benefits does not lift individuals out of poverty, especially those with disabilities. However, income from employment can provide a chance for an improved quality of life. The Social Security Administration is increasing its emphasis on work for recipients of disability benefits. The SSA has established some work incentives for SSI recipients, including the Ticket to Work program. SSI has earned income exclusions and the option of a Plan for Achieving Self-Support, which allows individuals to set aside income or resources with limitations. There is a proposal to increase the asset limit for SSI recipients, since they have not changed since the program’s inception 30 years ago.

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SSA is also aware that managing finances can be complicated for individuals who are working and receiving benefits so it sponsors an initiative called the Work Incentive Planning and Assistance Project. WIPA provides benefits counseling for individuals with disabilities receiving government assistance to help them make good decisions and take proper advantage of all available benefits. Neighborhood Legal Services of Buffalo is a WIPA agency. They offer conferences on Employment and Persons with Disabilities: The Impact of Employment on Disability Benefits and Medicaid. The information is provided for those who deal with individuals with disabilities and work and those who deal with rehabilitation agencies to prepare individuals for employment. NLS also produced a Benefits Management manual that is available through its web site http://www.nls.org.

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Cornell Cooperative Extension in New York state is an organization that offers workshops on “Making Ends Meet” in 17 counties. These two-hour workshops are available to the public, in some cases, for free.

Making sound financial decisions is a serious concern in particular for individuals with disabilities. There is an enormous need to help low-income persons with limitations make good financial decisions and protect themselves from those who would prey on their limited experience.

Finally, there must be a general recognition that for many with cognitive, physical or mental limitations as well as limited work experience, a job, while critical to a normalized life, important as a modeled behavior to children and the underpinning of the journey to self-sufficiency, may often not in and of itself lift families or individuals out of poverty. That is why there is a rich fabric of wage supplements, work supports and available services at the federal and state levels, including the EITC, food stamp benefits, health insurance, child care, child support, SSI or veterans’ benefits for those who truly cannot work and individualized case services.

Increasingly, the task for those who work with low-income and disadvantaged populations is to ensure that every avenue is utilized to connect them to the benefits for which they are eligible in as simplified a fashion as possible so they can receive the appropriate package of wages and work supports that make work pay. In many ways, the TANF block grant has changed the landscape of public benefits as dollars saved from significant caseload reduction have been reinvested in many supports and services for the working poor. Good assessment practices, individualized case management, financial literacy and asset building strategies, coupled with this income and benefit package are critical for all low-wage workers but particularly for those with special needs.

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Russell Sykes is deputy commissioner in the Division of Employment and Transitional Supports, New York State Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance. Co-written with Elise Melesky and Frances Shannon-Akstull.

COPYRIGHT 2007 American Public Welfare Association

COPYRIGHT 2008 Gale, Cengage Learning