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Assistant Labor Secretary Kathy Martinez on how disabled former workers can find employment again

By Kathy Martinez,

Kathy Martinez, U.S. assistant secretary of labor for disability employment policy, sent the following letter in response to this week’s reader. It was too long to fit in the print column, so @Work Advice is posting it here, with all her handy links and personal experience.

Dear Reader:

I can empathize with your situation. Although I was born with a disability, and did not acquire one as you did, I can relate to the feelings of uncertainty and concern related to going back to work: about what potential employers will think, about how a job might affect your disability benefits and about what you will be able to accomplish on the job. My employment journey definitely had some twists and turns. I can tell you one of my biggest fears was about whether I would have the accommodations I needed.

Since I am not familiar with your specific work history, education, talents, abilities and aspirations, I can’t provide you with specific career assistance or advice — but I can offer some practical advice and resources. First, I encourage you to seek out a mentor — someone who can provide support and advice on your particular career path. Planning a targeted career move under the guidance of someone who has already been there, and who knows and understands what makes you tick, is a key strategy to jump-starting your success.

It is evident from your letter that you’ve been wondering, “Can you keep Social Security Disability or Supplemental Security Income benefits while giving work a try?”

Yes! Over the last few years, the Social Security Administration has worked hard to help people know about the wide range of employment resources and work incentives (including a trial work period and the “Ticket to Work” program) available to those who receive Social Security Disability benefits and want to start or return to work. You can continue to receive your benefits until you begin earning wages or self-employment income above the applicable earnings limit for the Supplemental Security Income or Social Security Disability Insurance program. How much you can earn before it will affect your monthly benefit amount varies for each individual due in part to the fact that you can subtract certain amounts from your gross earnings by taking advantage of Social Security Work Incentives.

If you currently receive Medicaid, you might be eligible to continue to receive Medicaid even after you stop receiving SSI benefits due to work if you are eligible through a work incentive created by Section 1619(b) of the Social Security Act, or if your state has a Medicaid Buy-In Program.

Each local Social Security office has a work incentive liaison who can provide advice and information and assist you in understanding the work incentives available to you. For more information on Social Security work incentives, check out the Social Security Red Book.

Perhaps you’re also wondering, “Are there free resources for people with disabilities who want to update their job skills?”

Start by taking stock. What are your current work history, talents and abilities? What do you have to offer an employer? Will you need accommodations on the job? How much money would you like to earn? What are your hopes for career advancement? Write these down succinctly and review them, then come up with goals. Review the goals with a mentor, a friend or professional you trust who can let you know if you are being ambitious enough in what you are attempting to achieve. I mention this because, far too often as people with disabilities, we underestimate our talents and live down to the lower expectations of a society that hasn’t had the experience of being the co-worker of a person with a disability who is qualified and innovative, and who contributes to the bottom line of the business.

The Department of Labor has a great Web site for exploring careers and finding what types of career areas are expanding the most in specific states: the O*NET Career Exploration Tools.

The Department of Labor funds America’s Job Centers in every state, which are another great resource. In addition to career counseling to help you explore different jobs and careers, the centers have funding available for training and offer classes to help update résumés and conduct successful job searches. These “one-stop” centers go by different names in different communities. To find the one nearest you, visit www.servicelocator.org. In most states they work closely with your state’s vocational rehabilitation (VR) office for people with disabilities. VR is working closely with Social Security on helping people get back to work; the quickest way to find a VR’s contact information and Web site addresses is by going to www.ssa.gov/work and clicking on the state you want.

If you receive Social Security Disability Insurance benefits or Supplemental Security Income disability benefits, you are probably eligible for a “Ticket to Work” from Social Security. You can take a ticket to any training provider certified by Social Security as an Employment Network (EN). When the provider accepts the ticket, they agree to provide free services to beneficiaries under the Ticket program. If you and an EN agree to work together, you and the EN develop a plan that is just for you. The plan defines your employment goals and describes the specialized services that the EN will provide to help you meet your goals. All ENs offer career counseling, job placement and ongoing support services.

Finally, your local Independent Living Center is also another tool available that can help connect you with local community resources and peers with disabilities who have “been there.” To locate the one nearest you, see www.ilru.org/html/publications/directory/index.html .

But perhaps your questions are more focused on “How do you handle the disability issue in the job interview process with an employer given a long gap in your employment, and what happens if you need an accommodation to work?”

Accounting for a gap in employment is never easy. ODEP has developed a resource on disclosure to help you in making the important decision as to why it may or may not be best to disclose a disability during the interviewing process. Even though our “Why, When, What, and How to Disclose” publication is geared to youth, the information it contains is useful to people of all ages.

As for the possible need for accommodations, this was initially my biggest fear. It is important to keep in mind that we all need tools to help us be productive in the workplace. There are many kinds of accommodations that can help you perform the essential functions of a job, and under the Americans With Disabilities Act, individuals and employers have certain responsibilities related to accommodations. Our office funds the Job Accommodation Network (JAN), a free technical assistance resource for people with disabilities, employers and others that provide information on accommodations. JAN is a wonderful source of information, and the folks who answer the phone calls are experts in accommodations and many other issues related to working with a disability. Their Web site has a wealth of information; you can also call them at 800-526-7234 (voice) or 877-781-9403 (TTY for the deaf).

People get jobs through networks — so speaking with close friends and their colleagues may also be useful in helping you to think through and identify the accommodations that can help you succeed.

People often ask me, “Is doing volunteer work or seeking temporary employment a good idea when someone’s been out of work for a while?”

Many people have gaps in employment — for health-related reasons, child care, layoffs and so on. One way to transition back into work can be volunteering — it can help you try out new job settings, update your skills and get new references who can attest to your abilities. Go to Volunteering in America to find opportunities in your community. In addition, it is important to note that volunteer work will generally not jeopardize Social Security benefits in any way. Because your ultimate goal is to get a paid position, remember to go into this volunteer position with a definite sense of what you want to accomplish and what you want to do once you’ve succeeded in meeting these goals.

Another strategy for reentering the workforce is to gain employment through a temporary employment agency. It allows both you and employers to try out your skills without feeling obligated to a long-term commitment. Many employers will hire a person permanently after a tryout.

Mine your friends and acquaintances for job leads and connections. Through these connections, you may be able to set up some informational interviews as a way to get your foot in the door when a particular employer doesn’t have an advertised opening. This also affords you an opportunity to practice your interviewing skills, an essential component of your search. The Job Accommodation Network has a great interview checklist as well as a paper outlining practical approaches and strategies for a person with a disability launching a job search.

And finally, “What’s the main thing job seekers with disabilities should keep in mind?”

In addition to knowing about the supports and work incentives that are there to help manage your transition to work, it’s also essential to keep in mind the talents and skills you can offer employers! Even in this tough job market, employers are looking to hire qualified people, and a disability or health condition does not have to define or limit what you bring to the workplace. Check out the success stories from our Campaign for Disability Employment as well as the Office of Disability Employment Policy.

And, finally, it’s true that fear, misconceptions and antiquated stereotypes still remain the biggest barriers to people like me and you joining and thriving in the workforce. Your best defense against these problems is an offense: Be all that you can be. I believe strongly that the way to stamp out these obstacles is through firsthand experience. When we’re in the workplace and a part of a work culture that values us, these fears, misconceptions and stereotypes are gradually alleviated, because we have the opportunity to prove that we add value to the bottom line of our employer and to the economy of the country by becoming taxpayers.

Good luck to you! Your questions, and the answers to them, are important ones.

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