In theory, the federal and state government are very supportive of people with disabilities returning to work.
While the practice leaves something to be desired, you definitely can get help with expanding your training or education after becoming disabled, as long as the goal is to become more employable and return to work.
Some programs work only with Supplemental Security Income(SSI), some only with Social Security Disability Insurance(SSDI), but there are programs that work with both. The Social Security Administration(SSA) appears to run all of the disability employment programs.
These offices are supposed to provide support to people living with disabilities(whether or not they are on SSI/SSDI) with support for their job hunt.
Their offices are usually inside or connected to some unemployment offices, I know that the county that I live in has three unemployment offices, one of which also has a Vocational Rehabilitation office.
Do a search for VR and your state’s name, and it’s likely to pop up. If it doesn’t write out vocational rehabilitation -each state may have a slightly different name( in NJ its Division of Vocational Rehabilitation Services(DVRS)), but vocational rehabilitation should be in the name for each state.
They may help with job brainstorming, resumes, suggestions of where to look, or help you find training appropriate for the field you want to go into.
My experiences with DVRS
The division of vocational rehabilitation services(the name for VR support in the state of New Jersey) has provided services to both me and Al.
It’s been a mixed bag. When I went in with my Ticket To Work in 2004, they were able and willing to support my choice to attend Geographic Information Systems(GIS) training courses. Most of them were relatively easy to get funding for through DVRS, and there really wasn’t much else that I needed from them.
I took an introductory GIS course at my local community college, and a series of professional development GIS courses at Rutgers, a nearby university.
I already had a bachelors degree, so was not eligible for funding or support towards a degree(DVRS does not fund graduate programs, but will help people earn their bachelor’s degree), but I was able to use the program to earn a certification in GIS within about a year of starting.
They also funded five days of training from ESRI(the most popular GIS software in the field at the time), which was about the same price as my semester at the community college!
They offered resume support, which I did not take advantage of, and some additional support options.
After a bit over a year of training, I was able to get multiple internships in my field. A year after that, I submitted a business plan for my own GIS consulting business(focusing on part-time support for nonprofits), and eventually received a grant towards building my business.
Geographic Magic(the company I created) started in June 2006, and I maintained it for years, before eventually letting the business lapse due to lack of clients(attending grad school and finding new clients eventually became more than I could handle).
In 2007, I received a plaque from Workforce New Jersey(the unemployment program, which includes DVRS), for best use of their services.
Al’s DVRS experience
My partner Al and I went to DVRS to request services about five months after he broke his hip. He was able to walk, but used a cane to protect him from the risk of falling(his bones are still more fragile than most people), and was feeling very uncertain about his next steps.
He could not return to his prior job because the commute was too painful for him(about an hour of travel by car, train, and light rail), and that job required nearly constant sitting, which he also couldn’t physically manage.
His caseworker seemed very supportive and made some very insightful suggestions to Al in terms of what he could study.
However, when he was enrolled in the QuickBooks training course he eventually selected, getting funding was much more of a fight than it was for his classmates who were getting their training directly from Workforce New Jersey(state unemployment program).
I had been under the impression that DVRS provided more support than regular unemployment, but in Al’s case, he would have been better served just using unemployment.
He is not on SSI or SSDI so it is possible that that was a portion of his funding issue, and if you went to your vocational rehabilitation program with your Ticket to Work, the funding may not be a problem.
Ticket To Work Program
SSA does actually have an entire program to help people with disabilities return to work. It is called Ticket to Work. Through the ticket to work program, you may be eligible for additional training and education support through your state’s Vocational Rehabilitation(VR) program.
The ticket to work program also can connect you to many other programs, some of which are not government-affiliated, like temp agencies.
Whether you are on SSI or SSDI you can request a Ticket to help yourself learn new skills, find work, or rethink your career goals. It’s a voluntary program that will help you with your next steps, whatever they may be.
I would recommend that you wait to get your ticket until your condition has stabilized a bit and you feel like things are stable and predictable enough for you to focus on your schooling or job hunt. The last thing you want to do is overwhelm yourself, so do your best to be patient with yourself and focus on your healing first.
Substantial Gainful Activity
The most vital acronym to understand is SGA(Substantial Gainful Activity)
SGA values change over time, but is defined as earning a significant enough income to reduce or remove eligibility for SSI or SSDI.
The rules are different for blind vs non-blind individuals, for 2019, SGA for the blind population is $2040, while SGA for all other disabled individuals is $1220.
Earning over SGA will eventually lead to you losing benefits due to income.
The good news is that there are some things that can be subtracted from your income so that you can actually earn more than SGA in a month if you have the right documented expenses and consistently prove it.
Health Insurance Continuation
Both Medicare and Medicaid can continue well after you stop receiving financial benefits. Besides some states having programs specifically for people with disabilities who work, both SSI and SSDI have programs that will continue your coverage for relatively affordable rates, for years after you return to work, as long as you remain disabled.
For SSDI, the program is ‘Continuation of Medicare Coverage‘, and it promises that after your trial work period ends, those on the program will get at least 93 months(seven years and 9 months) of Medicare coverage after the end of their Trial Work Period.
Why such an arbitrary number? Who knows. But that is the minimum, so it’s likely possible to be eligible for even longer – you would need to talk to an expert about that if you reach that point.
For SSI, there isn’t a timeline, as the program is needs-based. If you return to work you are covered under section 1619.
Your benefits are reduced based upon your earnings, but as long as you have Medicaid and collected an SSI benefit for one month without earning over SGA, you just need to keep reporting your income.
While it’s under SGA your supports are guaranteed to continue as long as you remain disabled and have under $2,000 of assets. Once you earn over SGA, you need to remain disabled, have under $2,000 of assets, and stay under their earning ‘threshold‘.
This is calculated on a person by person basis but is based upon a combination of the specific rules for your state about SSI payments and your state’s records of the money Medicaid has paid for your care(or the average expense of one person’s care under Medicaid in that state, whichever is higher).
Finally, both SSI and SSDI recipients are eligible to receive their disability payments years after they have earned their way out of the program should their employment status change, as long as they are still considered disabled.
You do not need to reapply.
The expedited Reinstatement process will immediately restart your payments while SSA reviews your case and makes sure you still are considered disabled. This can take a few months.
However, if they agree that you are still disabled, your checks will continue unless you earn your way out of eligibility again or recover enough to no longer be considered disabled.
Conclusion: The government does offer programs to help you work once you are on disability
While the rules often feel unclear or confusing, the programs are designed with the intention of helping us rejoin the workforce.
Vocational rehabilitation programs are designed to help you return to work. While I have had mixed results working with DVRS, I do recommend communicating with them, as they can provide useful services. The more uncertain you are, the more likely it is that a vocational rehabilitation service can help you.
You can also participate in the Ticket To Work program, which should help you in your planning and learning process – look into that program carefully and pick the network that is right to you. Remember that you do have the right to get your ticket back and give it to a different network if the first isn’t helpful.
Also, both programs have ways for you to extend your health insurance long after the financial benefits have ceased as long as you know what to ask for.
If you work for several years and then have a relapse that prevents you from working, you are also eligible for expedited reinstatement.
Altogether, the social security administration is doing its best to encourage people with disabilities to return to work if we feel able to.
It is possible to plan ahead and manage your income so that you get the coverage you need when you need it, but also have the power to become independent if that’s what you are looking for.