Neil’s WID Conference Speech – Oct. 2014
I firmly believe that all people must work — even those with disabilities like me. Work brings meaning to life, provides essential social connections and allows people to provide economically for themselves and their families. I was fortunate to have had the values of hard work and independence instilled in me as a young child growing up with cerebral palsy. My parents taught me that I was capable of working despite my disability and achieving personal reliance. As a result, for nearly 30 years I built a career at Wells Fargo, rising to senior vice president of information technology. Also, I helped create the World Institute on Disability’s Center on Economic Growth in 2011. Work gave me a purpose. Work made me proud. Work allowed me to gain economic independence and build a secure financial future.
Unfortunately, our nation has set very low expectations for people with disabilities in terms of employment. This low expectation starts with the government’s definition of disability as the “inability to work.” Under current Supplemental Security Income (SSI) rules, an individual with a disability must prove they cannot work to be eligible for benefits, including health care and other independent living supports. Individuals with disabilities exploring work must balance the need for financial assistance, health care, personal attendant care, and accommodations while overcoming low cultural expectations, lack of employment experience, a challenging job market and employer discrimination. On top of that, the complexity of the system and disincentives resulting from reliance on vital health care resources and the inability to retain earned assets and remain SSI eligible often prove to be too challenging.
Our current system is written for another time, when we assumed people with disabilities would be dependent on their whole lives on the support and help of the government and others. The Federal government literally called these programs “Aid to the Permanently and Totally Disabled.” These days, new technology, medical breakthroughs, and a recognition that people with disabilities want to work has destroyed this outdated thinking. We need to change with the times. It is time to modernize the traditional SSI program.
This is why WID partnered up with the National Council on Independent Living and Policyworks to design CareerACCESS. CareerACCESS offers an alternative for SSI eligible young adults to escape poverty and dependence. The CareerACCESS goal is to make it easy to work. A young adult working with a Career Coach would develop an Individualized Career Plan to achieve personal and professional goals. CareerACCESS rules would allow increased earnings and remove asset limits to enable the participants to gain financial independence.
For this initiative to get implemented, young adults with disabilities across the US need to take charge of CareerACCESS for change to happen. We need to work together to implement a system that will offer real hope for people with disabilities to fully participate in the nation’s economic growth and achieve their own career goals and independence. Young adults are the voice of the future and represent the change that can take place.