Like most Americans, Michael values work. He has a community college degree and an inquisitive mind. He wants to work, but he isn’t working. While Michael isn’t alone in being involuntarily unemployed, he faces hurdles that others don’t. He has cerebral palsy. He is a wheelchair user and he needs attendant care. He’s very social, has a great recall for facts and is a good communicator.  He has an attitude and education that many employers complain they’re unable to find in young workers.  But right now, Michael doesn’t have a job.  He’d like to change that and as a society that values work, we should want to change that too.

The Employment Situation for People with Disabilities

While we rejoice in the report that our economy produced 321,000 new jobs in November, for people with disabilities, employment is far more elusive.  Currently, the unemployment rate for people with disabilities stands at 10.8% as compared to 5.3% for people without disabilities. The labor participation rate for people with disabilities stands at 19.7% as compared to 68.7% for people without disabilities.  This translates into greater poverty numbers. Over 28 percent of adults with a disability aged 21-64 live in poverty – more than twice the rate of people without disabilities.  This problem has a greater reach than some might think. One in five Americans has a disability. One in ten has a severe disability.

Several factors create this situation, including a disability support structure with little history of guiding people with disabilities towards work or building assets and an anti-poverty community ill-equipped to support people with disabilities. This is true in spite of the disproportionate number of people with disabilities who live in poverty.

Another key factor is simply fear. Fear both on the part of employers and the worker with a disability.  Many employers fear the changes they believe they’ll need to make and the expenses they fear they’ll incur if they employ a person with a disability.  They also worry their hire will be ill-prepared for the workplace.

People with disabilities who seek employment fear that if they get a job, their new income will make them ineligible for Supplemental Security Income (SSI). People with disabilities who receive SSI are also eligible for Medicaid.  Medicaid provides supports that in many cases are a life or death proposition for beneficiaries.  SSI is means-tested.  If a SSI recipient is removed from the rolls, they don’t return to the rolls easily.

Providing Financial and Life Skills: One Local Solution

In response to these concerns, the Pennsylvania Assistive Technology Foundation (PATF), with funding support from the Pennsylvania Developmental Disabilities Council, launched the Money Club.  Over the course of 15 months, the Money Club meets monthly to talk and learn about money.  Club members also receive individual financial counseling and mentoring.  At the end of the course, club members understand wants vs. needs, budgeting, banking and earning income without losing benefits, among other skills. They are also provided with a structure to help them acquire assistive technology to help them live more independently.  Graduates of the Money Club are prepared for work and for life.

Assistive Technology and One Good Way to Help Acquire It

Assistive technology is a device that helps a person with a disability live a more independent and productive life.  Sometimes assistive technology is a more expensive device like an adapted vehicle or a scooter. But it also can mean a simpler product like a hearing aid or a computer with special software.  Michael is a member of the Money Club.  His most recent assistive technology acquisition is a blue tooth device.  For those of us without disabilities, a blue tooth device is a convenience. For Michael who has limited dexterity in his hands, it is a life changer. It makes his personal life easier and equally importantly it makes him more employable.  The blue tooth device allows Michael to use a phone – a basic, essential piece of office equipment – without assistance.

Some of Michael’s fellow club members have also recently acquired valuable assistive technology.  Ian, who has Asperger’s Syndrome, is a sous chef.  His job requires that he uses specialized knives and protective gloves.  Through participation in the Money Club, Ian was better able to budget and then purchase the equipment he needs.

How did they acquire these devices? They used a matched savings tool called an Individual Development Account (IDA).  IDA accountholders save a designated amount each month and a local administering organization matches their savings to help the accountholder acquire an appreciating asset. Eligible assets are determined by the funding source and the administering organization. PATF’s IDA program asks accountholders to save $20 per month, which is matched 2:1. So Michael and Ian both saved $20 each month and PATF placed $40 in their IDA on their behalf.   Members of the Money Club were allowed to build accounts of up to $600.

Two unusual things about PATF’s program: 1) accountholders save for assistive technology and 2) accountholders may use unearned income for their contribution.  Most IDA programs allow neither.  The largest source of IDA funding in the country the Assets for Independence program (AFI), only funds IDAs for home purchase, small business capital and post-secondary education.  Further, AFI requires that the accountholder contribution come from earned income.  This is problematic for many people with disabilities whose main income is from SSI.  This makes it difficult for people with disabilities to access IDAs, even though many of them are exactly the type of accountholder that programs want.   A low-income worker with a disability is just as eager to move from receiving public benefits to being self sufficient as a person without disabilities. But the current system locks them in.

This week, some relief may have been provided. The passage of the Achieving a Better Life Experience (ABLE) Act allows for tax exempt savings accounts that permit some people with significant disabilities to save up to $14,000 annually for education, housing, transportation, employment training and support, assistive technology, personal support services, health care expenses, financial management and administrative services and other expenses to be determined by the Treasury Department.   Each state will be responsible for establishing and operating an ABLE program. If a state should choose not to establish its own program, the state may choose to contract with another state to serve its residents with significant disabilities. But no accounts can be opened until the Treasury Department completes the regulations sometime in 2015.  Individuals with disabilities acquired at the age of 26 or later will not be eligible.

People with disabilities can use more programs like PATF’s that prepare them for life and the workforce Passage of the ABLE Act is a movement in the right direction, as could be adjustments to IDAs and other anti-poverty programs that permit people with disabilities to participate in them on their way to greater independence.

Susan Tachau is the executive director of the Pennsylvania Assistive Technology Foundation in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania.

René Bryce-Laporte is the Principal at Bryce-Laporte Information & Consulting, focusing on helping low- and moderate-income Americans find social and economic opportunity. For the past 18 years, René has helped these Americans earn more, keep more of what they earn and grow their assets for the long-term.