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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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

What Does “Employment First” Mean?

In 2009 and 2010, Connecticut and Massachusetts joined several other states across the country in adopting an “Employment First” policy. This policy establishes that for adults with disabilities, integrated, individual employment is the preferred service option and optimal outcome. NEBA is a strong supporter of this policy, and we have been achieving many of its goals since our inception.

In Massachusetts, the stated goals of Employment First are as follows:

    •  Achieve Integrated Individual Employment. Integrated employment has always been the focus of NEBA’s service model.
    • Offer Comprehensive Self-Employment Support Services: NEBA’s Business Development Center, one of the most extensive self-employment programs for individuals with disabilities in the country, enables individuals who are serious about starting their own businesses to write a business plan and receive ongoing support for up to three years.
    • Achieve Employment Based on Individual Preferences and Needs: NEBA’s individualized approach helps the individuals we serve find and remain in the job they desire. If the individual lacks a core competency that is required for the position they want, NEBA’s job skills training program helps them build their necessary skills.
    • Place an Emphasis on Natural Supports: NEBA works with employers to identify natural supports that will enable the individual to successfully complete their job duties.
    • Maximize Work Hours: NEBA believes that the optimal employment status should be one where individuals are working the maximum number of hours they are capable of working.
    • Use Community Settings for Non-Work Hours: In additional to employment services, NEBA works with a variety of community centers to provide opportunities for volunteerism and other activities that can result in greater inclusion in community life.

Implementing these goals results in measurable increases in employment of individuals with disabilities within the general workforce who are earning minimum wage or higher with benefits. NEBA is currently working with our legislature, employers, and community partners so that we can all more effectively make the goals of the Employment First policy a reality.

The Power of Your Vote

As we consider the outcome of Iowa’s January caucus and the New Hampshire primary, the noise of the 2012 presidential campaign continues to grow. The critical point to remember in the election process is your vote matters.

Add to that the vote of family members and friends and your vote grows in importance exponentially. Your one vote is now many votes. This happens when the issues and how they affect your rights are understood.

Now is the time to know what benefits and issues matter to you.

Have you considered the number of benefits you presently receive and what might change in your life if they were changed?

Do you know how your elected representatives voted on bills that affect you and your family?

There is time between now and the fall elections to learn how candidates have performed in the past and who might be the best candidate going forward. Your local newspaper reports on the voting record of candidates. This information is also online. Save this information so that you can learn the trends or regular voting patterns of your elected officials.

On what committees do your legislators serve? Do these committees affect you directly?

Present conditions might be so discouraging or confusing that not voting seems to be the best solution. If a person chooses not to vote they  have no right to complain about a legislator’s voting record or the situation in general.

While it may seem very early to be having this conversation, it is a conversation worth having at any time. Understanding the issues takes time. Starting now will give you, your family and friends time to better understand what the candidates support. Then you can make an informed vote.

The presidential election fills much of the media’s attention. Often the information focuses on the candidate’s behavior, their past, rather than current issues.  Media focus on party affiliation can also hide or confuse what the candidate(s) really endorse.

State and local issues are important and not always featured in the media. It requires time to find this information and learn how it connects with the national issues.

Where to start? First, are you a registered voter? Go to your local municipal office and see if you are registered to vote. Once you have registered to vote, read local papers regularly, watch the news and discuss your questions with others. Be informed. Encourage others to do the same.

The quality of your neighborhood, your community, your state and your country may depend on your vote. It is a powerful right and responsibility.

Listen to and read about the candidates during the next 10 months. This is time enough to become an informed voter. And be sure to vote.

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

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