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Independent Living News & Policy from the National Council on Independent Living

Naming Ableism in Our Fight for Career Access

CareerACCESS, a community-driven proposed program of reforms to SSI that will provide an alternative benefits program for youth with disabilities, has a new blog that features stories of youth with disabilities across the US and their experience with SSI.

One recent installment is called “Naming Ableism in Our Fight for Career Access” by NCIL Youth Fellow Allie Cannington. Check out Allie’s story below, and read more stories and take action at:

Photo of Allie CanningtonOctober’s Disability Employment Awareness Month may be over, but the struggle for equity and opportunity in the world of employment for people with disabilities continues. With abhorrently high rates of unemployment and poverty amongst the disability community, especially for young adults with disabilities, there are countless complexities to be understood, addressed and challenged by community members, leaders, advocates, and allies. Some of these complexities, as you know, fall within the Social Security disability programs, especially the restrictions under Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits. In order for individuals to receive SSI, they must prove that they are “unable to do any substantial gainful activity”. Moreover once individuals receive SSI, they are merely surviving: with somehow balancing financial assistance, health care, personal attendant care and accommodation requirements. Thus, poverty persists. And unfortunately, no matter how many employment efforts exist, transitioning off of SSI often means people with disabilities have even fewer supports in place for survival, let alone self-determination. This is due to the harsh reality that as soon as individuals work more than the capped amount, their benefits are removed. And so, there is this impossible, oppressive bind: even though folks receiving SSI can technically work, they are restricted in earning or saving enough to actually build assets.

So the realities are clear: there are systems in place that facilitate patterns of poverty and unemployment for the disability community. Yet, throughout existing discourse related to advocacy and reform, there is rarely mention of ableism and how SSI’s current state perpetuates ableism. To quickly define ableism: it is the societal dominance and power of able-bodiedness at the expense of people with disabilities. In other terms, ableism is the oppression of and against people with disabilities. When we are advocating for reforms such as CareerACCESS, we must name ableism as a clear reason for needing systematic change. When the disability community faces political, social, and economic injustice, our fight is at a loss when we don’t incorporate analysis, strategy, and action that name ableism. For example, our current Social Security disability programs’ strict requirements regarding who may be “unable to do any substantial gainful activity” perpetuates ableism. In part, this continues ableism because the criteria is based on able bodied terms of “productivity”.  Therefore, if a young person with a disability falls under such criteria, their ability to build assets and develop professionally is significantly limited. This, often arbitrary, measurement can be the determinant for someone’s quality of life and survival (e.g. access to Personal Care Attendants). Ableism further embeds the system because if you are deemed “fit” to work beyond SSI criteria, your benefits will be removed due to the assumption that other assets should cover disability accommodations and other needed supports. This is often untrue. It ignores the inherent diversity of disability and diversity of needed accommodations, especially in our society where ableism runs rampant.

In order to grasp the power of CareerACCESS, we must understand that CareerACCESS strategically disrupts ableism by securing young disabled people their SSI, through an alternative benefits program. This alternative program provides access to professional and personal development. Right now, this is not possible. Young adults with disabilities cannot receive their benefits while also in-depth exploring the world of work and professional development. This opportunity for young adults with disabilities to work and professionally develop, while still receiving their benefits challenges the policy’s ableist measurements. Therefore, the paths created by CareerACCESS facilitate greater opportunity for young adults with disabilities to develop workplace skills, experience and networks that can lead to greater anti-ableist economic equity.

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