Rocco has a job. For some that might not seem like a big deal, but for Rocco it is because traveling to work is more challenging because he has a disability. In years gone by, he might not have been able to work at all, but with some basic accommodations from his employer and a van equipped to transport his wheelchair, Rocco is able to successfully contribute to the workplace. Before he began working, he felt unfulfilled. Now he brings home a salary, supports a family, maintains a home, and has a sense of independence. Unfortunately, Rocco’s story isn’t common enough.
Disability, on the other hand, is more common than you might think. According to the Census Bureau, one in five Americans has a disability and about one in 10 has a significant disability. For those with disabilities, the employment and financial health situation is more difficult. The unemployment rate for people with disabilities is 12.8 percent, as compared to a 6.0 percent unemployment rate for people without disabilities. The labor participation rate for people with disabilities is a paltry 19.8 percent, as compared to 68.8 percent rate for people without disabilities. For those that do work, median income for adult workers with disabilities is $20,448, $10,433 less than the $30,881 median for people without disabilities. The poverty rate for people with disabilities is 29.2 percent, more than double the national rate. In short, those who are disabled likely do not work. Those that do work earn less. In any case, people with disabilities are much more likely to be poor. There is much to be gained from some changes in priorities and policies. That has begun, but we have a bit farther to go.
This summer, on the same day that President Obama signed the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA), the National Disability Institute (NDI) released a study that showed how far we still have to go. There is no doubt that we have made some advances since the passage of the Americans with Disability Act (ADA) 24 years ago. WIOA will be helpful too, backing up the promise of more and greater work opportunities with the requirement that states produce a strategic plan to describe how they will provide services to people with disabilities, complete with accountability metrics. We hope that the provisions of WIOA will help fulfill the intention of ADA to help people with disabilities achieve “economic self-sufficiency.” But we aren’t there yet. NDI’s study shows that people with disabilities:
- Have a harder time making ends meet. They have greater difficulty covering monthly expenses, often spending more than they take in.
- Have a harder time planning ahead. They are less likely to have a rainy day fund or have planned for future expenses like retirement or their children’s college tuition.
- Have more trouble managing financial products. They are more likely to have interest-accruing credit card and other bad debt, express concern over repaying loans and resort to risky non-bank lending.
- Display lower levels of financial capability. Despite the more complex financial obstacles they face, they tend to have lower levels of financial knowledge and are less likely to have received financial counseling.
That being said, Rocco’s example shows that being a person with a disability does not mean being a person without abilities. We should take care not to see people as such. While yes, some people’s disabilities are so significant that they will never be able to work, many people with disabilities can with some reasonable accommodations and access to transportation and assistive technology earn more, keep more of what they earn and even build assets for the future. How to make that happen?
A foundational key is a simple evolution in attitude — not just among the broader public, but also among policymakers and practitioner organizations. Too many still don’t the potential of people with disabilities. Some organizations like the Pennsylvania Assistive Technology Foundation (PATF) are working to provide people with disabilities with access to assistive technology. Assistive technology includes items like: adapted vehicles, computers and tablets with specialized software or hardware, home modifications, hearing aids, scooters and wheelchairs, and more. These tools help people get jobs and increase their quality of life. PATF helps people with disabilities build assets and gain financing to acquire these tools.
Given the large number of people with disabilities who are also low-income, anti-poverty organizations should make a particular effort to learn about and address the particular challenges faced by people with disabilities. For instance, PATF is entering into a collaboration with the credit counseling service Clarifi to develop a train-the-trainer booklet so that Clarifi counselors will be able to identify resources for people with disabilities as well as make recommendations to make it possible to work and maintain important governmental benefits (attendant care, health care coverage, Supplemental Security Income).
Similarly, policy-makers should keep people with disabilities in mind when suggesting anti-poverty solutions. One common hurdle is asset-limits. Many of the programs people with disabilities use are means-tested. Many people with disabilities are reluctant to seek employment as they fear their earned income will increase their personal assets to a level where they are no longer eligible to receive benefits.
There are a number of practitioners nationally on this path, but we would like to see those numbers grow more quickly. Legislation like WIOA is also a step in the right direction. We are hopeful about its potential and hope for more legislative efforts to enrich the lives of people with disabilities.
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.