The Achieving a Better Life Experience (ABLE) Act, which was signed into law on December 19, 2014, aims at improving the financial stability of persons with disabilities by authorizing tax-advantaged savings accounts for people with disabilities, known as ABLE accounts. Assets in ABLE accounts can be used to cover any “qualified disability expense,” which can include housing, transportation, support services, and any other expense reasonably related to disability. Additionally, funds in the ABLE account will not be taken into consideration when determining eligibility for federally-funded means-tested benefits, such as Supplemental Security income (SSI) and Medicaid.
ABLE accounts create several economic options for people with disabilities that were largely unavailable previously because of their impact on federal benefit programs and disability support programs.
Alex Ghenis first heard about ABLE and ABLE accounts through his job at the World Institute on Disability. He says the organization had provided a wide array of financial education, including asset-building and work incentives, and ABLE was right at the front of their efforts. The more he learned about it, the more he felt encouraged to sign up.
Alex, who has a spinal cord injury, says having a disability affected his employment and asset-building opportunities in many ways. Among other things, including constraints related to his ability to earn due to income limits associated with being on public benefits, he faced savings limits that made him have to balance income and expenses. These constraints prohibited him from being able to save for his future and limited job opportunities simply because of his disability. Alex also has higher medical expenses that can affect his financial stability and economic future.
Alex says having an ABLE account opens up a huge amount of possibilities for his economic future. “Being able to save isn't just about putting money away; it's about being able to hold a higher-paying job and build a career, to invest and even learn about investing and to have some financial peace of mind.”
He plans on using his ABLE account for a variety of expenses, whether for emergency expenses or everyday bills like rent, groceries and the occasional medical expense, such as a new wheelchair part not covered by insurance. Through his ABLE account, Alex also hopes to save enough to pay for large, life-changing expenses as they come along.
ABLE accounts can help people with disabilities by giving them the ability to save for emergencies or other sudden expenses, in addition to short and long-term expenses. Lack of savings for sudden expenses can make it harder to keep a job. For example, if a person lacks savings and uses a car to commute to work, that person might not be able to fix the car in the event of a sudden breakdown and might lose their job. In the event of a sudden health care emergency, a person without savings may lose wages due to lost work time or have out-of-pocket health care expenses that are unexpectedly high. This sudden financial crisis may interfere with the person’s ability to pay for transportation to work or other work-related expenses, leading to job loss. Since the ABLE Act enables people to accumulate savings beyond previous asset limits, it may help people with disabilities retain employment by allowing them to save for these expenses.
In May, the LEAD Center will release a brief titled, “The ABLE Act and Employment: Maximizing the Effectiveness of the Achieving a Better Life Experience (ABLE) Act as a Tool for Increasing the Financial Stability and Employment Outcomes of People with Disabilities.”
For over 35 years, people have known about best practices and evidence-based approaches to support employment for people with intellectual disabilities. Still a majority of job seekers only learn about and/or participate in systems that utilize ‘traditional’ job search approaches. Customized Employment and Guided Group Discovery (GGD) provide an orientation to the best practices of “supported employment” in a way that is accessible to job seekers hearing this information for the first time. Though a job seeker will likely need additional support beyond the group, Guided Group Discovery provides a place to start and can serve as an introductory boot camp for people who are starting to think about employment. Contrasting the ‘customized’ approach from the ‘traditional’ one provides a vehicle for changing the conversation from “Do you have work for me?” to “What am I looking for from work?” and ”What job would be the best fit for me?” It also pulls in partners so that jobseekers can benefit from services and supports offered by multiple systems, increasing their chances for success.
Creating a space for people to have ownership over their own job search is an interesting prospect, especially for those with complex barriers. St. John’s Community Services in Pennsylvania (SJCS-PA) has been working with men experiencing homelessness at Bethesda Project’s Our Brothers’ Place Shelter and youth living in communities of high intergenerational poverty at The Village of Arts and Humanities. For both groups, barriers include racial discrimination, gaps in or a lack of work history, food and housing insecurity, mental and behavioral health challenges, and a wide range of traumatic experiences. In the face of such systemic hardship, these individuals regularly showcase their ability to navigate complicated social and community-based services, manage complex and competing schedules, act with incredible patience and understanding, and demonstrate internal strength and unwavering persistence. Customized Employment and Guided Group Discovery provide the protected time and space to dig in and identify skills like these and to translate them into their potential contributions to an employer.
In the work SJCS-PA has done with the men at Our Brothers’ Place, one of the most powerful exercises completed was on in which participants were asked to practice their pitch to an employer. This included explaining why they were there (interests), why the owner would be making a good decision in hiring them (contributions), and what they needed from the employer in order to accept the job (conditions). It took significant effort for many of the participants to articulate anything beyond what they typically might have to offer a business. They needed to hear in their own voices that they believed they really have many skills and attributes that would benefit employers. For one participant in particular, it took over 10attempts before he was even able to make eye contact while confidently and succinctly making his pitch.
In engaging job seekers with a disability or anyone with complex barriers to employment, it is also important to view the interaction through the lens of employment as a preventative public health intervention, in that it can improve health and lessen the chance that someone will live in poverty . Research has shown that the unemployment rate is twice as high for adults who have experienced four or more traumatic experiences as children compared to those that experienced zero, as measured by the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) questionnaire. Since 1977, the life expectancy rate has increased 5.3 years for men in the top half of the income distribution, but only 1.3 years for those in the bottom. Low income Americans have higher rates of heart disease, diabetes, stroke, and other chronic disorders. In 2014 28% of working age adults with a disability were living below the poverty level. In fact, people with a disability are twice as likely to live in poverty as people without a disability.
The work SJCS-PA is doing with The Village of Arts and Humanities is part of the work to end the cycle of intergenerational poverty that disproportionally occurs in communities of color. The Village operates a robust array of programming for youth centered on the Arts, which we have operationalized for employment as encompassing the Creative Economy. We have completed the first in a series of focus groups to get insight into what the youth see as possible career paths in the community and what they feel are the opportunities that are available to them. This will influence the planning of Customized Employment and Guided Group Discovery to help meet them where they are at.
In the last session of the Guided Group Discovery group, we always focus on giving a detailed explanation of the Workforce and Vocational Rehabilitation resources in the community. We also assist jobseekers in building direct connections with specific contacts and provide weekly check-in phone calls. These partnerships are essential in making meaningful impact in our community. There are a lot of people who are in need of a living wage and a stable income. We will never be able to reach everyone and achieve outcome unless we all work together. Our work with the homelessness, workforce, vocational rehabilitation and community employment systems goes a long way to demonstrate that these partnerships can work.
Bethesda Project provides emergency shelter, housing and supportive services for 2,000 homeless and formerly homeless men and women in Philadelphia every year. By providing a home and safe environment, homeless individuals are able to stabilize and regain a sense of dignity and self-worth. Of all Bethesda Project’s residents, 65% have serious medical issues, 60% have mental illness diagnoses, and 45% have histories of addiction. Each resident and shelter guest at Bethesda Project’s 13 sites receives personalized, caring attention and is encouraged to achieve the most independent level of housing possible. Case managers work with guests and residents to overcome their individual challenges and set achievable, realistic goals.
The Village of Arts and Humanities (The Village) is a nationally renowned community arts organization based in North Philadelphia dedicated to neighborhood revitalization through the arts. They value the power of creativity as our most powerful and effective tool for catalyzing healthy and sustainable change. Their legacy is rooted in artist-facilitated community building, beginning with the work of our founders—dancer, choreographer and civil rights activist Arthur Hall (founder of Ile Ife Black Humanitarian Center, predecessor to The Village) and civic practice artist Lily Yeh. Over 30 years, their work has evolved from a focus primarily on arts education and land transformation to a broader and intentional commitment to increasing all residents’ access to tools for creative self-actualization. The Village strives to create a nurturing, energized working environment that taps the creativity of its staff and the neighborhoods to generate programs that are highly supportive, dynamic, and inspiring.
Inclusion works, and at the Job Accommodation Network (JAN), we can tell you – with research to back it up – that the benefits employers receive from implementing effective workplace accommodations far outweigh the low cost. We call this research the JAN Study. The JAN Study has been ongoing since 2004. In that time, more than 2,250 employers have been interviewed. Employers in the JAN study represent a range of industry sectors and business sizes, and they first contacted JAN for information about specific accommodation situations. Approximately eight weeks after their initial contact, these employers were asked a series of questions about the situation they discussed with JAN.
In the JAN Study, employers reported that providing accommodations resulted in such benefits as retaining valuable employees; improving productivity and morale; reducing workers’ compensation and training costs; and improving company diversity. These benefits were obtained with little investment. The employers in the study also reported that a high percentage (59 percent) of accommodations cost absolutely nothing to make, while the rest typically cost less than $500.
Below are a couple examples of low-cost accommodations. To read more on various accommodation options for people with disabilities, visit JAN’s Searchable Online Accommodation Resource (SOAR).
- A sales representative with a construction company experienced migraine headaches and was sensitive to office lighting. As a reasonable accommodation, the employer modified a workplace dress code policy and allowed the employee to wear sunglasses at work. By making this accommodation, the employee’s attendance improved and the employer felt that it had accommodated a qualified employee and adhered to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The employer reported that the accommodation cost nothing.
- A veteran who worked as an insurance company representative had post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and a traumatic brain injury. He was sensitive to certain environmental noises. The office had recently been remodeled and rearranged, and the employee was experiencing anxiety due to audio and visual distractions in his workspace. As a reasonable accommodation, the employer provided noise canceling headphones with white noise capabilities and noise reduction barriers in his workstation. The employer stated that the employee and his supervisor were happy with the outcome, and the organization was glad to accommodate a veteran. The reported cost was $350.
Workplace accommodations are effective. Employers who had implemented accommodations, by the time they were interviewed, were asked to rank the effectiveness of the accommodations on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being extremely effective. Of those responding, 75 percent reported the accommodations were either very effective or extremely effective. You can read more on the results of the JAN study in JAN’s Accommodation and Compliance Series document – Workplace Accommodations: Low Cost, High Impact.
Not only has JAN gained and shared knowledge from the JAN Study on the cost and benefit of workplace accommodation, but in over 30 years of conversations with employers and individuals with disabilities, JAN has developed tools for employers and people with disabilities to help facilitate and implement effective workplace accommodation practices.
Recently, JAN released a new toolkit called JAN’s Workplace Accommodation Toolkit. The JAN Toolkit includes sample accommodation procedures; examples of policies and forms from leading U.S. businesses; training presentations; role-play videos; and best practices for creating an inclusive workplace for people with disabilities. The Toolkit provides inclusive practices at various phases of the employment life cycle for recruiters; hiring managers and supervisors; human resource professionals; accommodation consultants; and allies of employees with disabilities. Checklists are also available to help keep track of the accommodation process.
Because JAN is a technical assistance service of the Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP), all of these resources are free. You can access the JAN Workplace Accommodation Toolkit by using the following link: http://prod.askjan.org/toolkit/
Want to learn more about how JAN can help you? Check out JAN’s new video – JAN is here for YOU! We encourage you to contact JAN directly for a one-on-one confidential conversation, or check out JAN’s extensive website, AskJAN.org, for more information on how you can benefit from implementing effective workplace accommodations.
Anne E. Hirsh,
Co-Director, Job Accommodation Network (JAN)
Anne Hirsh has been with JAN since 1986. She became a consultant in 1988 and then was appointed to Associate Manager in 1994. In the fall of 2007, Anne became JAN Co-Director with Lou Orslene. Anne has a Master’s of Science in Rehabilitation Counseling and Vocational Evaluation from West Virginia University. In 2006 she received WVU College of Human Resource and Education Laddie R. Bell Distinguished Service Award for her national, regional and local service to people with disabilities. Through the years she has worked with all JAN teams. Her primary focus was with the sensory team. She currently serves as a "floater" filling in where needed. Additionally, Anne presents on accommodation and employment issues for national, regional, and local audiences. Anne's research interests include effective approaches in accommodation, educating both employers and individuals on successful means of communicating accommodation needs, and accommodations of individuals with hearing loss and individuals with psychiatric impairments.