Modernize Disability Benefits So People With Disabilities Can Work

09/25/2014 01:59 pm ET Updated Nov 25, 2014

So much of our society has changed over the past 60 years. We have made tremendous progress in technology, medicine, education -- and in the recognition that all people must be treated equally. Why is it, then, that we continue to impose an outdated system on people with disabilities (PwDs) that restricts their ability to work and earn a living?

Our current system was written for another time - back in 1956, when we assumed people with disabilities would live in institutions or with their parents, were denied access to school, and were largely dependent on others throughout their lives. The federal government actually titled one of these programs "Aid to the Permanently and Totally Disabled." They were set up before basic civil rights laws were passed, including the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which gave people with disabilities access to public schools and spaces.

Under current law, there are two main benefits programs for providing income support for people with significant disabilities. The first is Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) which is a social insurance program designed to replace a portion of a worker's wages should that worker become unable to work due to disability. The second is Supplemental Security Income (SSI), which is an entitlement program that is not financed by a dedicated trust and what tends to be people with developmental disabilities who require services and supports to enter and stay in the workforce. They were designed to help people with disabilities injured on the job or facing poverty, as well as for children with significant disabilities, helping their families offset the higher cost of raising them. However well intentioned, they often prevent people from working.

In 2016, SSDI will have a financial shortfall, and this new fiscal cliff provides an urgent and needed opportunity for new thinking. Currently, to get benefits under SSDI or SSI, individuals must meet the disability definition of "the inability to engage in substantial gainful activity (SGA) by reason of a medically determinable physical or mental impairment expected to last at least 12 months." They can have a job, but the monthly SGA earnings limit to get SSI in 2014 is $1,070 for non-blind individuals and $1,800 for statutorily blind individuals. It is extremely difficult to live off these funds, yet millions of Americans do so because being in these programs gives them access to something far more vital than cash payments - health insurance and other supports through Medicare and Medicaid.

Indeed, polls show that for millions of Americans with disabilities, it's not cash they want. It's the opportunity to work. It's access to a personal care assistant (PCA) to help someone who is quadriplegic get out of bed, dressed and transported to work and to live independently.

Someone who is newly blind or deaf may need cash benefits temporarily while they get training in how to function independently and use assistive technology. They may also need free access to computers that will "talk" to or for them as they read or type at work. But then they will be ready to work and may not need a cash stipend.

For someone with cancer or recovering from a stroke, it may be access to healthcare and flexibility in the workplace to allow him or her to go to doctor's appointments or to telecommute. But today's system is all or nothing, and to get those vital services people with disabilities on SSI can't have more than $2000 in liquid assets. This undermines two basic American values -- hard work and savings - and promotes isolation and poverty. It victimizes people with disabilities. It traps people with low expectations, when they would rather pursue their dreams of work, savings, dignity and independence.

Congress is due to vote soon on the bipartisan Achieving a Better Life Experience (ABLE) Act that presents a part of the solution. It has an impressive 379 cosponsors in the House and 74 in the Senate. If the ABLE Act becomes law, SSI/SSDI recipients who acquired their disabilities at a young age will be able to maintain services while working full-time and/or in better- paying jobs, while building some savings for disability-related expenses that exceed the current outdated limitations. Isn't this what we all should want?

However, while the ABLE Act would be a massive improvement, it would not help the millions of Americans who received their disabilities after the age of 25. And it is still too small for people with more involved disabilities who need a personal care assistant to get dressed and to work. We need to modernize the system and increase the limits placed on income and saving for all working-age people with disabilities receiving SSI/SSDI. This will allow them to build a safety net with their own earnings rather than with government benefits.

While keeping a solid safety net for those who need it, we should enable people with disabilities to work, and have procedures in place to allow them back on SSI or SSDI quickly if they lose their jobs. After all, workplace discrimination still exists and realistically it can take them longer to find new employment. We need to do some short term fixes to deal with the insolvency of SSDI. However, the long terms solution is to stop punishing people with disabilities who dare get jobs and become taxpayers.

It's time to embrace the unique characteristics and talents that people with disabilities bring to workplaces, which benefit employers. As companies like Walgreens, AMC, EY and others have found, employees who have disabilities are extremely productive, highly loyal and less likely to quit. If we find the right jobs for the right people, it will boost companies' bottom line.

Modernization of the full disabilities benefits system would be good for taxpayers, who will not be required to foot the entire bill for a lifetime of dependency; good for businesses who find loyal, reliable, and motivated employees; and good for people with disabilities, who will be happier, healthier, and lead fuller lives when they are able to work. Updating the benefits system and increasing employment among people with disabilities is a win-win-win.

Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi is the president of www.RespectAbilityUSA.org, a non-profit organization working to empower people with disabilities to achieve the American dream. She can be reached at JenniferM@RespectAbilityUSA.org.