Navigating the Maze of Social Security

Most people never want to be in a situation where they must rely on Social Security benefits to make ends meet. However, these benefits provide an essential safety net when an individual is faced with a disability or other significant barrier to work.

When a Social Security disability beneficiary determines that they are able to return to work, they are often unsure of how much work they will be able to perform and how their income will affect their benefit. Social Security is such a complex program, with so many moving parts, scenario contingencies, and rules within rules that it is nearly impossible to comprehend.

Because of the complexity of Social Security, and because each benefit situation is unique, NEBA relies on professionals who have gained an extremely thorough understanding of the program to meet with beneficiaries and their families. These benefits counselors work for programs called Work Incentive Planning and Assistance (WIPA) and Protection and Advocacy for Beneficiaries of Social Security (PABSS), which also provides legal services for beneficiaries.

Benefits counselors are absolutely essential in helping beneficiaries and their families understand the rules, risks and rewards involved with going back to work. In almost every case, beneficiaries emerge from their consultations with a thorough understanding of their benefit situation and are much more confident to attempt working again to the best of their ability.

Unfortunately, funding for the WIPA and PABSS programs is now in jeopardy. Congress has failed to re-authorize the WIPA and PABSS programs, which are slated to be defunded as of June 30, 2012. We know that the WIPA and PABSS programs are effective in empowering individuals with disabilities with the knowledge they need to navigate the Social Security maze and confidently return to the workforce. Many of these workers do remain employed, gradually reducing or eliminating their need for government benefits while generating income tax revenue.

For more information about the WIPA and PABSS programs and the efforts to save them, please visit the National Employment Network Association.

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Serving the Deaf Population

Next month marks my first full year with NEBA. One of the things that attracted me to this organization was their openness to serving any population.  This mentality has allowed me to be of service to the deaf population in Connecticut. I am hard of hearing and am able to speak in ASL (American Sign Language).  Last year Bureau of Rehabilitation Services (BRS) certified us/me in ASL so we could serve the deaf population.  We currently serve four deaf clients through BRS and one through the Department of Developmental Services (DDS).  I have enjoyed working with them, but we face a number of challenges and are working as a team to break through those challenges. 

Here are some of the things NEBA emphasizes in working with the deaf population:

  • Deaf people are able to compete in any competitive employment environment as well as anyone else.
  • Any accommodations that the people we serve require are reasonable and and are of minimal or no cost.  An example of an accommodation is a video phone.  Any deaf person can make calls in the same manner as a hearing person, but an interpreter interprets everything that is being said by both parties in a phone conversation. There are many examples of technology that has opened up a new horizon for the deaf population. 
  • Communication can be difficult but it is NOT impossible. When a deaf person is hired in an environment in which no one knows their language, NEBA is able to help facilitate communication.  This usually does not take too much time.

NEBA and I both take pride in being able to serve the deaf population in the employment world and make a positive impact. We want to do all we can to ‘bridge the gap’ between the beautiful deaf world, its unique culture and language, and the hearing world.  We hope to recount some great success stories in the coming weeks and months!

Challenging Sheltered Workshops

NEBA was founded in 1983 to advocate for an alternative to the standard practice of sheltered workshops for individuals with disabilities. In sheltered workshops, individuals with disabilities often perform mundane tasks, have little interaction with non-disabled peers, and earn far below minimum wage.

Through the years, NEBA’s individualized, supported employment approach has provided more career options, more wages, and more opportunities for community inclusion for the people we serve than sheltered workshops ever could. Unfortunately, sheltered workshops are still the rule rather than the exception in Massachusetts and nationally.

However, there is a hopeful sign. For the first time in our nation’s history, individuals with disabilities have filed a class action lawsuit to challenge the practice of sheltered workshops. This lawsuit challenges the state of Oregon for its practice of funding segregated workshops, and alleges that these workshops are a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act.

Within the past decade, more laws and regulations have clearly stated that individuals with disabilities should live and work in their communities, not segregated out.  Despite this, referrals to sheltered workshops continue to increase. The National Disability Rights Network reports that “for every one person working in competitive employment, three people remain in segregated settings.” 

In Massachusetts, 6,126 individuals receive funding from the Department of Developmental Services for employment services.  Of these, 3, 217 individuals are in segregated, facility-based services compared to 1, 810 individuals who are in an individual, supported job.  Despite having an “Employment First”   initiative in Massachusetts (which advocates for competitive employment as a preferred outcome) more than 50 percent of residents with developmental disabilities remain in segregated, facility-based programs.

The Oregon lawsuit may have major implications nationwide as more advocates and individuals with disabilities speak out about their right to have real work, earn real pay, and be a real member of their community.

Jeannine Pavlak, Executive Director, NEBA

The Entrepreneur Myth

The myth is based on the heroic image of beginning with nothing, working hard and surviving the process.  The myth is re-enforced with the belief that entrepreneurs are born, not made.  The opposite is the reality.  New business owners are usually technicians, skilled in some type of specialized work or activity. One day the “technician” decides to become self-employed, basing the decision on their technical skills, not the process needed to succeed. In fact, the process is unknown to them. 

Starting a business is a dream that many people have. Individuals often start a business as the only way open to earning a living. The business starts, not from some noble vision or exciting dream, but from need. 

Reaching and growing a customer base is just one of the unknowns. Identifying the financial needs of the new business is often limited to what is needed now, not later. Tracking outcomes, not just income, is rarely done by new business owners. Soon there is a confusing, confounding situation that diverts the owner’s energy from managing the product or service resources needed for the business to grow. 

Starting a successful business requires a plan with a set of processes that allows the technical skill to be available to others for a competitive price. A business plan is the place to start. A plan based on the owner’s technical specialty and the proven processes that support marketing and distribution of a product or service. Because the owner is a technician he/she must commit to delegating those activities they do poorly to others who do them well. This process teaches the owner-technician how to manage the needs of the business.

The key to understanding the power of the process is the possibility that someday the business may be successful enough to create a second location or unit. Building the business on proven administrative, marketing and accounting processes from the beginning permits growth to occur with a minimum of stress/chaos. Tracking outcomes from the beginning and analyzing for strengths and weaknesses alerts the owner to what works or needs to change or drop. A business plan is the foundation upon which a business owner is created. Following and adapting the plan as necessary is how a successful entrepreneur is established.

Colleen M Moynihan, M Ed, CLU, CMFC
Director, NEBA Business Development Center

The Key to Employment Success

Every day, I see articles scattered about the internet about jobs. Job creation, job success, interview tips and tricks, what to put/not to put on your résumé…the list goes on. Some of these articles, however, don’t even describe the most important step in finding a successful job placement, not only for agencies supporting individuals with disabilities, but for everyone.

A legitimate question: how many of you buy something immediately after seeing it, without even asking what it does or how much it costs? Probably very, very few of you. What would make you more likely to purchase it? Probably a few things:

  • The item’s purpose – What can it do for me?
  • The item’s cost – How much will this cost me?
  • The item’s performance – Is it well-built? Is it made by a reputable manufacturer? Does it have good reviews?
  • The item’s demand – Will I really use this if I purchase it?

A lot of what NEBA does it similar to a customer contemplating a purchase, only the customer is an employer, and the item (not to intentionally dehumanize), is our job seeker. Employers have all of these basic questions (and then some) in mind. To paraphrase the above list into employment terms:

  • The job seeker’s role – What can this person do to help my business?
  • The job seeker’s pay – How much should I compensate them for their work? Can I afford it?
  • The job seeker’s credentials – What are their skills? Does NEBA know they are a good match for my business?
  • The job seeker’s effectiveness – If I hire this person, will it be worth my investment?

Back to the important key step in employment success. Before an employer can even begin to ask these questions, they need to trust the person they are speaking with. This does not happen in the first, or second, or even third or fourth conversation together. It takes time to build a relationship, and that is the first key to employment success for our individuals. Is it mostly in the job seeker’s hands to succeed? Absolutely. But with NEBA as the catalyst to employment and as the initial contact to employers, it is our relationship building that starts the journey to successful placement.

If you happen to receive a visit from a NEBA employment consultant, you can be sure we won’t blurt out our mission statement. We want you to do the talking first. 🙂 It is about your business, not our job-seekers. We want to know what your business does. How you have reached your current status as a business. How today’s economy is affecting your bottom line, and your employees. We want to know how your business impacts the community. We also want to know your story. How did you come to be the employer that you are? Are there things you would change about your business? What’s your favorite ice cream flavor (hey, it can’t be all business)?

The bottom line: If we don’t know about you, we cannot possibly know about your business. If we don’t know about your business, we cannot possibly know if a NEBA job seeker would be a great match. Without taking the steps to nurture a relationship, there’s no point in even asking about job opportunities, because neither NEBA nor an employer wants to invest in something they don’t know about.

-Ryan Aldrich

Senior Employment Consultant, Connecticut Services

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