Employment for Differently Able

I want to start by saying how proud I am of Kayla McKeon for making it as a lobbyist – a very demanding job (Klein, 8 Jun 18, Washington Post). I’ve come across other well-spoken self-advocates over the years, including several whom I had the pleasure of serving on Boards with. But I think more can, and should, be done.

While success stories, like Kayla’s, warm my heart; the unfortunate truth is there are many other individuals with disabilities who are not employed. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics 2017 Economic News Release employment of those with disabilities was 18.7%, compared to 65.7% for those without a disability (US Dept of Labor).

These numbers should shock you – as a father of a son with multiple disabilities frankly they scare me. There’s a glimmer of hope because the study also found “Employed persons with a disability were more likely to be self-employed than those with no disability.” To me this means if we want our friends/family members to increase their odds of successfully entering the work force we need to be looking for gaps they can fill.

Some of the more common areas are landscaping and food service, but as technology advances I believe more and more opportunities will present themselves – if we think outside the box. Manufacturing could be done in your basement with a 3D printer, after finding a niche market too small for big brand companies to go after. Or, perhaps you could establish yourself as a tutor or online language instructor (teaching people your native language).

I have faith companies will become more comfortable hiring individuals with disabilities, but it’s going to take time. It’s also going to require those in position to hire to get away from cookie cutter solutions – not every hole will be filled by the perfect square or round peg. Most of us are making accommodations of some kind when we hire now, it’s rare to find the “perfect fit”. So rather than letting the disability be the focus of your attention, look for what they CAN do.

How? How do I suggest people do this? First, by spending more time around people who have differing abilities. Stories like Kayla’s help, but we have a LONG way to go until it stops feeling like a novelty and more like “of course we hired so and so, why wouldn’t we?” Families and friends – highlight what individuals are doing, without qualification (such as “despite their disability” or something similar). Most people want to work, and have skills they bring to the table. Making accommodations should not be confused with making work. Look at what your company needs, and get creative about how those needs may be met.

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One Small Step

Our minds are amazing and powerful, and when applied properly can result in us accomplishing fantastic and unbelievable things. Unfortunately, almost all of us have, at times, allowed our brains to become our worst enemy. I doubt anyone does this deliberately, I think it’s hard-wired from more primitive days to keep us alive; but we should be aware and be ready to challenge it when it happens.

I have a few times that stand out VERY clearly – my son’s first diagnosis, my wife’s passing and my pending retirement. Each of these probably seems very obvious, I was facing a significant loss. But there have been less “obvious” times – halfway through a 5k, as I approach project deadlines or even when deciding if I should walk the dogs.

It starts innocently enough, the self-talk isn’t obviously negative; just an overview of other options or possibilities. For me, it didn’t take long for these thoughts to take on a life of their own – I’m creating whole dialogues and if/then end results; and suddenly I realize I’ve convinced myself the worst is going to happen and I haven’t even started down a path. When I was younger I missed opportunities because I wouldn’t give myself the chance to be successful and prove myself wrong.

It’s taken me years to accept my son has Autism, which is not (to me) the same as accepting his diagnosis. I have chosen to refuse to believe he cannot live a fulfilling, independent life. I have had to re-frame what “independent” means, because we all use supports – for some of us they are just less obvious.

Now, I take a different approach. I still evaluate the risks and weigh the pros/cons, I plan for a living so I doubt this will ever stop. But instead of allowing myself to go down the vortex of negative self-talk, I focus on the first step. After my wife died that first step was just getting out of bed, then getting into shower, etc. I literally broke every thing I did into single steps, and celebrated accomplishing them as a “win” because I needed to.

Every journey starts with a step, and no – we’re not psychic. We can’t know what’s around every corner, and sometimes life is going to hit you in the face with a cast iron skillet – and it’s going to suck, a lot. But this doesn’t have to remain your reality. What’s the next, small, step you can take to make things better?

For example – you hate your job. The next step isn’t “find another job” – this is too broad and can be overwhelming. The first step could be what do you hate about this job. Do you control any of it? If you do, what is the easiest thing you can change to make things better. Maybe it’s getting up 30 mins earlier or stopping at the gym on the way home to stay out of traffic. If there is nothing you have control over, then think about the first step to getting a new job.

What do you want to do which you have the skills for? Write out your skills and talents. Write out your nonnegotiable – what are the absolutes you must have for a healthy work experience (be realistic)? Pick one search engine (I like SimplyHired) and start looking. Be aware of your self-talk, and stop yourself when/if you catch yourself saying “I’ll never find something for my skills”; “there are no jobs in my area” or anything else not supportive of the efforts you’re making. These are not helpful, you are going to find answers supporting your beliefs – this is known as Confirmation Bias (Farnham Street, May 2017).

You DO control your happiness, because you control how you perceive and react to the world around you. Take your ownership back, one small step at a time.

We’re Not Atlas

In Greek mythology, Atlas was tasked with holding up the heavens on his shoulders (Atlas, 17 Dec 2016); and as parents of children with challenges (emotional, physical, neurological, etc) I believe it’s easy to feel the same way sometimes. It can be so easy to get caught up in our own world, believing no-one else can understand or relate. And unfortunately, this may very well be true as it pertains to your current circle of friends and family.

But you’re not chained to these circumstances – no matter how overwhelming it may seem. As I’ve stated in past posts, it takes just one step forward to start overcoming inertia. Make the time to go to a resource fair, or read (listen to an audiobook); anything to get you out of your own head.

I’m biased, I don’t want to hang around with people who acknowledge how hard I have it – this isn’t helpful to me. Yes, I’m a single father of a child with a disability, and I happen to have some of my own challenges as a legacy from my time in the service (don’t we all?). But none of these define me. I have the same 24 hours in a day as everyone else, and although I may get less sleep (not by choice), ultimately it’s up to me to decide how to use my time.

We’re powerful, all of us – not just those of us who have challenges or family members with different needs. Each of us has different strengths, and weaknesses, so although it may feel really great to share how “hard” things are, nothing is going to get “easier” unless/until you do something to change your circumstances. If you “can’t”, then look for someone who can. Find someone who has overcome a similar challenge – I will guarantee you they are out there; although you may not hear them shouting from the mountains.

In my experience those who get things done, just do them. They don’t spend much time bemoaning their current situation with a “woe is me” attitude. Sure, there are probably pity parties – life sucks sometimes. But you can either wallow in it, or you can get help to pull yourself out. Notice I did NOT say you can pull yourself out ALONE. If you could do this alone it would already be done.

As much as it may feel like we are alone in this world, and we’re shouldering more than our fair share of problems, understand this – there is someone, somewhere who has it much worse than you and is getting it done. I think all of us are stronger than we give ourselves credit for; but I also think we allow ourselves to believe we’re beaten or overwhelmed because it’s often the easier road.

You’re not alone. There are people out there who have overcome some incredible disadvantages and challenges – what can you learn from them? How can you ask them for a hand-up (not a hand-out)? Who do you know who has overcome their own challenges?

Better yet, who do you know who is in the midst of challenges, and you think to yourself “man, they’re lucky that’s all they’re dealing with”? Go to them, offer your help. And while you’re helping open your mind to possibilities. What can you take from this experience to help in your own situation? Is there anything they can do to lighten your load? There are a LOT of people in the world, there is absolutely NO reason you should solve problems by yourself.

Overwhelmed? Stop & Breathe!

Why, when we are at the edge of our limits, choose to push ourselves even harder? Perhaps because we think it’s what we have to do to cross some conceived finish line. Or perhaps it’s all we’ve ever known, or what we’ve seen others do. In my opinion, based upon personal experience, this is the worst thing we can do – because from what I’ve seen it leads us into worse choices or dead-end solutions.

I think it sounds counter-intuitive, but when you get to your “breaking point” stop. Take as much time as you need to put everything in perspective. Identify what is going wrong, and more importantly, what is going right. And don’t allow yourself to say “nothing is going right”; which will more often than not be the initial belief. Find something (it’s there, trust me) and focus on that.

From there, take an inventory of your resources. What is available to you? Of those things available to you, what can you adapt to your current situation? Write EVERYTHING down; because your emotions are going to be a roller coaster, and memory can be fickle – coloring things based upon your mood. When considering resources, include friends, family, trusted advisors, etc… Whatever  you do, DON’T continue alone.

After serving 20 years in the Navy, I’ve learned “slow is fast”. Your body and brain will be screaming at you to “take action” – don’t. This is when mistakes and poor choices are made. Think of it like a high-pressure sale – is there really anything in it for you (most often the answer is “No”). Beware of suddenly attractive solutions, especially if you never would’ve considered them when you were not under so much stress/pressure.

I’ve been to (and over) the brink and back more times than I can count. I wish I could say I’ve mastered my emotions so it doesn’t happen anymore – but that’s just not the case. But what I have done is when I’m “lucid, write out a “roadmap” for me to refer to when enough is enough. Even this wasn’t my idea, I adapted a suggestion a good friend gave me when I was on the search for a job. Her suggestion was create a list of non-negotiables.

This same list applies when I am overwhelmed and seeking solutions. Reminding myself of my non-negotiables keeps me on track, and forces me to recognize when I’m in “react” mode. This works for me, but all of you are not my clones (how freaky would that be?!).

When you are in a good space, even if your good space is something others would consider pure chaos, brainstorm what helps you feel grounded. What is it about where you are right now that makes you comfortable and happy? Write everything down, no matter how trivial it seems. Then, let it sit for a day, and go back to it. Tweak it as you need to until it “feels” right.

Most importantly, put it somewhere you will see it without having to look for it. Because when the poop hits the fan you’re not going to have the energy or bandwidth to do “one more thing” – especially something like looking for a piece of paper that is supposed to make you feel good. Maybe make it the wallpaper on your computer, or set a reminder on your phone where it pops up. Whatever works for you. But like so many other things, it ONLY works if you take action. Stay strong, you’re better than whatever life can throw at you.

Entitlement

I’ve heard a lot of discussion, for and against, government forms of support – Medicaid, SNAP, housing, etc. Most of the comments seem to focus on who should or shouldn’t receive the help – but none of those making the comments fit what I would see as “qualified experts”; which to me is individuals who have worked in these spaces or are experts on the benefits themselves.

It feels like there is a LOT of anger about those who don’t “deserve” benefits receiving them. In fact, on more than one occasion I’ve been told the government is doing “too much”; and everyone seems to have a story about someone they know who “deserved” benefits not being able to receive them. Yet when I ask clarifying questions to understand what led to the benefits being disapproved I’m met with disgusted looks and/or change of topics.

As I’ve said before, I do not doubt the system is being abused. I’ll even admit it’s “broken”; but I believe we should look at making repairs and tweaks – rather than do away with the entire thing. Let’s focus on Medicaid to provide a concrete example. And we should be very careful about what changes we make – beware unintended consequences.

Medicaid is health insurance for those with disabilities and the destitute. There is discussion in progress cut $1.4 Trillion (with a “T”) in Medicaid (See Article Here). Sounds reasonable – save the government money. However, this could force States to reduce their funding, hurting those who need assistance most. “The Congressional Budget Office estimated on a preliminary basis that Graham-Cassidy would result in the loss of health insurance coverage for “millions,” cap federal Medicaid payments to states, and give states the option of imposing work requirements on parents with children over age 6 (Andy Schneider, 2/12/2018).”

Yes, people need to work. But what if you have a child with significant support requirements, and one of the parents is a full-time provider? This occurs more often than I think most people not impacted by a disability realize. These families are not advertising their situation, they are putting their heads down and doing everything they can to survive. In many cases they didn’t ask for this and without the extra funding face losing their homes.

Safety nets, like Medicaid and SNAP, are in place for a reason. If you find yourself begrudging someone of this assistance, ask why. In some cases it almost sounds like jealousy – yet when you peel the onion back those same individuals complaining have, more often than not, made some poor life choices putting them in the negative financial situation they are in – without the option of a government “bailout”.

Again, this is a generalization. Yes, there are deserving people who cannot get services. My son, for example, did not get approved for the amount of SSI I had expected and a few of the items I filed with the VA were found to not be “service-related”. There are processes in place to contest findings you don’t agree with; or you may have to learn to live with it. If you want to increase the odds of your success, talk to those who have gone before you.

But don’t fault another family for doing what they need to do to survive. You don’t know their circumstances – when was the last time you were completely open about what was going on in your life with a complete stranger (who wasn’t your physician)? Want to change the system(s), look for ways to create opportunities for those less fortunate than yourself. Offer hand-ups, not hand-outs – and stick to what you control. I think you’ll be happier for it.

Veterans Pension (VA)

There is a LOT to cover when discussing Veterans and Survivors Pension (VA), this post is going to focus on income – because I have found it to difficult to determine how much income someone can earn, and maintain eligibility. Included are links to the information I found, and if anyone reading this has new/different data (and can support it) please post in comments. I will make multiple posts as I explore the VA pensions.

Income is defined as “payments of any kind from any source” (Statute 3.271); and includes recurring (equal amounts and at regular intervals); irregular (unequal amounts or irregular intervals); Nonreccuring (one-time basis during a 12-month period); Salary (gross earnings); Business, farm or professional income (depreciation and losses may not be deducted from other income sources); income from property; and installments (total amount anticipated/received over 12-months).

When considering income, you are allowed to make certain deductions to determine your eligibility (get your income below the threshold). For a veteran without a spouse or child, 2018’s annual income must be below $13,166 (Veteran Pension Tables). For a survivor w/o a child, the annual income is even lower – $8,830 (Surviving Spouse Table).

The following items will not be considered income:

Welfare – donations from public/private relief agencies. Maintenance – “The value of maintenance furnished by a relative, friend, or a charitable organization (civic or governmental) will not be considered income.” VA pension benefits are not counted as income. Casualty loss reimbursement. Property sales (profit) and joint accounts (when the individual becomes sole owner through the death of the other owner). Survivor benefits are not counted.

In certain cases, unreimbursed medical expenses may be used to reduce an individual’s income (verbatim from Code):

(i) They were or will be paid by a veteran or spouse for medical expenses of the veteran, spouse, children, parents and other relatives for whom there is a moral or legal obligation of support;

(ii) They were or will be incurred on behalf of a person who is a member or a constructive member of the veteran’s or spouse’s household; and

(iii) They were or will be in excess of 5 percent of the applicable maximum annual pension rate or rates for the veteran (including increased pension for family members but excluding increased pension because of need for aid and attendance or being housebound) as in effect during the 12-month annualization period in which the medical expenses were paid.

This is just a very light overview of all the variables to be considered. If you know a veteran, surviving spouse or disabled child who earns less than $15k my recommendation is find a veteran service organization (VSO) and work with a chapter service officer to submit a fully developed claim. VSOs do NOT charge money to help veterans and their dependents file a claim – this is a FREE service. For a list of VSOs click here.

 

Oh SNAP!

I may be hypersensitive to this because of my concerns for my son’s benefits, but it feels like a common theme when trying to cut government spending is reducing what is spent on public programs – like SNAP or Medicaid. To add insult to injury, this seems to become a bandwagon, with the most vocal people chiming in about how the majority of people they see using these programs are abusing them.

I’d like to challenge this with one thought – you see what you look for. If you’ve convinced yourself (or allowed yourself to be convinced by media) these programs are only being taken advantage of; then because of a phenomenon known as confirmation bias, this is exactly what you will see.

SNAP, or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, is designed to help people put food on their tables; but the benefit is not large enough (by design) to allow people to live off surf and turf every night. The USDA website provides an overview of what SNAP can purchase, and notably absent are things like alcohol, cigarettes, pet food, soda, candy, etc.

This program also places strict limitations on how long “Able Bodied Adults” (age 18 – 49 w/o dependents or a disability) can receive benefits – 3 months in 3 years, if they don’t meet special work requirements. I’ve included a link to the SNAP eligibility page here; because I think it’s important we form our opinions from verified facts, rather than blindly believing what we’ve been told. And please, take a moment if you catch yourself trying to argue to really explore where this feeling is coming from – is it because you don’t want to be proven wrong, or can you substantiate your belief with facts.

Is there abuse, almost certainly. The unfortunate truth is there will always be those who try to take advantage of a system. But a bigger truth is approximately 41 million Americans struggle to put food on the table (source Feeding America). Poverty is real, it’s not as simple as telling the elderly, those with disabilities or just out of work to “find a job”. Are you hiring?

Don’t be quick to judge next time you see someone using a SNAP debit card, this could be you during the next economic downturn or after a random accident. Take some time to educate yourself on the benefit amount and restrictions by going to the source, not Fox news or CNN. For convenience, here’s a link to the USDA website. And perhaps most important of all, don’t lose sight of the fact these are people, just like you.