On Tuesday, August 1, 2000, in Chicago, the St. Paul Plan to Achieve Self Sufficiency (PASS) cadre took part in a national/regional forum on disability entitled, “Federal Policy-State Opportunities: Models and Strategies for an Inclusive Workforce.” This gathering was another in a series of similar meetings held at various locations throughout the United States over the past year. One purpose for these forums is to bring together representatives from all facets of the disability community-providers, consumers, advocates-to exchange information, raise awareness, and increase the understanding of all parties involved in the laws and the lives of persons with disabilities.
Chicago Regional Commissioner, Jim Martin, opened the conference with gracious introductions and pertinent opening remarks. (Later on, Mr. Martin was part of a panel discussion and did the wrap-up for the event.)
Next, SSA’s Deputy Commissioner for Disability and Income Security Programs, Dr. Susan Daniels, gave an informative and inspirational powerpoint presentation. Dr. Daniels recounted SSA’s past, present, and future, and some of SSA’s recent successes and challenges, in the area of service delivery of benefits to people with disabilities and their families.
The status of the implementation of the “Ticket to Work” legislation, and OESP’s new website ssa.gov/work, were among the updates given by SSA Office of Employment Support Programs Deputy Associate Commissioner, Mike Greenberg. Mike is confident that the “ticket” regulations will be in place by 9/1/2000, and that, by 01/01/01, the “ticket” can be used by people with disabilities in selected states. Along the same, decidedly-upbeat theme, Mike gleefully reported that OESP’s website, www.ssa.gov/work, currently boasts 15,000 hits per week, compared with only 1000 per month one year ago.
Then a palpable hush, borne of collective respect for the man and his position, descended upon the ballroom, as Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Mr. Kenneth Apfel, gave the keynote address. A masterful orator, Mr. Apfel expressed his pride in the fact that the Workforce Improvement Act (WIA), and the Ticket to Work and Work Incentives Improvement Act (TWIIA), are laws enacted during his tenure as SSA commissioner. Said Commissioner Apfel: “TWIIA and WIA are examples of how an educated, informed, activist, hard-hitting, and involved citizenry can change the laws and governance of society.” Continuing his praise for TWIIA and WIA, Mr. Apfel recalled SSA’s 65th anniversary this month:
“Just as there was a need 65 years ago to encourage inclusion and independence for America’s senior citizens, I am proud to be part of this system of laws (TWIIA and WIA) that encourages that same spirit
of inclusion in the workforce and independence for persons with disabilities…” He continued, “when I began my career in rehab almost 30 years ago, independence and inclusion were just dreams.”
Commissioner Apfel reiterated what persons with disabilities know very well: that access to affordable health care is the single, biggest barrier to work. He also emphasized that only when persons with disabilities can trust SSA to give consistent and correct information, will they be more willing to risk losing their benefits. “I would like people with disabilities who wish to work, to view SSA as helping, not inhibiting,” said Apfel. Other measures affirming return-to-work by person with disabilities are, according to Commissioner Apfel, “individual empowerment (e.g., the ‘ticket to work’ legislation), a change to SSA’s internal structure (e.g., creation of OESP, ESR position), the indexing of Substantial Gainful Activity (SGA), raising the Student Earned income exclusion, easy ‘on-off’ benefits-processes, and communication between SSA and other federal agencies such as the Department of Labor and Health and Human Services.”
In response to an audience question, Mr. Apfel said that he is against the notion of eliminating SGA altogether. Mr. Apfel believes SGA can and should be a “ramp”, not a “cliff.” In that way, he says, SGA can actually be an incentive to encourage return-to-work.
After lunch, the forum’s audience of hundreds continued to hear from panels of notable leaders in the disability community on a variety of topics, including Medicaid buy-in and interagency cooperation.
Following this segment, a particular question from an advocate drew much attention from the panel: “How can we (advocates) enthusiastically promote returning-to-work for our clients if, by so doing, they are possibly, irreversibly, severing their benefits-connection with SSA/SSI?” The panel’s response was to say that this conundrum (“paradox,” if you will) is, in a sense, the eternal question faced by persons receiving SSA disability benefits. The panel stated that they hoped new and future legislation will focus on making going on and off SSA’s programs as unobtrusive as possible. [Ed. note: This writer is proud to add that for the past four years, and with demonstrable success, the 40 or so PASS specialists throughout the nation have helped make returning-to-work more plausible, more accessible, and less scary to persons with disabilities.
The last segment of the forum was spent in state-by-state breakout sessions. These sessions were designed to brainstorm and hypothesize about issues of local importance and relevance.
The St. Paul PASS cadre would like to thank the organizers and presenters for the opportunity to attend this informative event.
If you have a question about this conference or any return-to-work subject, please contact the St. Paul PASS cadre at 1-800-551-9796.