A job is more than a paycheck. It also provides a sense of fulfillment and purpose. A physical or mental disability can take that away. A person with a disability can lose his or her connection to the outside world, making life a desperate struggle.
That’s why the Social Security Administration offers programs to help people with disabilities return to work when they are ready. To help the process of healing and recovery, SSA maintains the financial and health care benefits they were getting when they were unable to work – a humanitarian bridge, if you will – until they can regain a sense of normalcy.
These programs have been criticized as ineffective because, so far at least, relatively few people who receive SSA disability benefits take advantage of the return-to-work benefits. But those who were dedicated and patient enough to go through the system and get back on their feet almost invariably have a positive experience. With a few tweaks and improvements, the program can do just that for many thousands more people who are ready – indeed, eager – to return to work.
One such program is called Ticket to Work. It was created by SSA in 1999 to assist citizens aged 18-to-64 who receive Social Security Disability Insurance or Supplemental Security Income. The program offers benefits counseling and employment assistance to beneficiaries, including career counseling, vocational rehabilitation, job placement services and training from SSA authorized service providers. These providers include Employment Networks, Workforce Employment Networks and State Vocational Rehabilitation agencies. These entities partner with the federal government to give program participants individualized assistance as they navigate the return to work process.
Pat Galligan, an insurance professional from Edwardsville, Ill., is an excellent example of how effective the program can be. Pat slowly lost his eyesight between the ages of 30 and 50 due to a condition called retinitis pigmentosa. When his sight was gone and he could no longer carry on at work, he applied for SSDI benefits and began exploring how to adapt his education and job skills to the radical new world he faced.
While coping with his new reality, Pat learned about the Ticket to Work program through Social Security-provided information. While working with the Ticket to Work program, he received computer training on screen-reading software developed for the sight impaired. With the support of the program’s financial incentives – and driven by his strong desire to go back to work – he returned to the insurance services industry in just two years by joining Allsup and stopped drawing SSDI benefits. He remains part of our team today.
Pat is an example of the program working the right way. But hundreds of thousands of people like him aren’t as eager or able to find that path. Only 30 percent of the 8.6 million SSDI beneficiaries know that Ticket to Work support exists.
Ticket to Work can and must be improved to attract more Pats to the program. It needs to keep pace with technology and the ever-changing job market. A newly launched organization called the Secure Work Coalition supports reforms that will increase the effectiveness of Ticket to Work and other programs like it. The group’s hope is to help streamline and strengthen these programs to expand the number of beneficiaries who go back to work, an outcome that would reduce SSDI and SSI costs and increase the quality of life for millions of Americans.
The coalition has proposed reforms that would encourage full- and part-time work for participants, consolidate and integrate all return-to-work activity and technology tools, currently spread across multiple divisions of the SSA, and increase awareness of the program by requiring the agency to take more visible actions to inform disability claimants when they first apply for benefits about return-to-work support benefits – something, remarkably, that isn’t done routinely.
Modernized, funded benefits counseling and work-support programs at the SSA can help thousands of disabled Americans fulfill their potential. These counseling and support programs will surely be needed more than ever as the job market continues to evolve.
More workers and more effective government programs would be a victory for all. It would help reinforce the solvency of the federal Disability Insurance Trust Fund for future enrollees. Improving and enhancing programs like Ticket to Work present a huge opportunity not just for the taxpayers but for individuals who seek the dignity of work despite their disabilities.
Jim Allsup is the founder and CEO of Allsup LLC, owner of Allsup Employment Services, which helps individuals return to employment and economic self-sufficiency through the Ticket to Work program.
Morning Consult welcomes op-ed submissions on policy, politics and business strategy in our coverage areas. Updated submission guidelines can be found here.