At some point in their child’s early adolescence, most families suddenly realize that the services and programs that they rely on to care for the child will soon disappear and be replaced by radically different benefits. Most of these new benefits abruptly come into play once their son or daughter leaves the public education system, which often provides the bulk of the child’s care and daily structure. This may happen at any time between age 18 and 23, depending on the state and the child’s particular needs.
One of the most important aspects of this transition is securing additional educational and employment services for the child. According to the National Collaborative on Workforce and Disability, one-quarter of all adults with disabilities work at either a full- or part-time job. Some of the remaining three-quarters are unable to work at all due to their disability, but a large number of disabled adults who aren’t employed don’t have a job because they lack the skills necessary for gainful employment. Several federal laws address this situation with the goal of providing vocational education to a wider segment of the population with disabilities.
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) mandates that special education plans begin transition planning when a child turns 14. At this point, a written transition plan must be incorporated into a child’s Individual Education Plan, outlining the steps a school will take to help a child with special needs acquire skills necessary for an eventual move into the workforce. By the time the child turns 16, the special education team must steer the child towards development programs keyed towards the child’s individual vocational preferences. The law also mandates periodic measurement of the child’s progress to ensure that he receives attention from the proper vocational advocates.
Once a child reaches 18 and receives either Supplemental Security Income (SSI) or Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) payments, the Social Security Administration (SSA) offers several programs to encourage him to work. The best-known program, Ticket to Work, is a somewhat complicated program designed to offer beneficiaries a way to begin a career without having to worry about losing their SSI or SSDI benefits.
Under the program, any month that a beneficiary earns more than $780 counts as a month of “trial work.” If during any 60-month period a beneficiary has nine months where he earns more than this $780 limit, the trial period ends. After the end of the trial period, a beneficiary does not receive an SSDI payment in any month where he makes “substantial earnings” of more than $1,090. For three years after the end of the trial period a beneficiary can immediately regain benefits if he falls below the substantial earning level and still has a disability. Also, a beneficiary receiving Medicare because of participation in SSDI can continue to receive free Medicare Part A services for up to four and a half years following the end of the trial period. While complicated, these rules make an SSDI beneficiary’s transition into the workforce slightly less burdensome than if benefits immediately ended.
SSI beneficiaries, on the other hand, must conform to very strict income and asset limits. Often, beneficiaries who could hold a job do not pursue one because they are worried that they will lose their SSI benefits once they earn too much. While this is certainly a concern, the benefits of employment may outweigh the loss of SSI. Furthermore, the government provides specific incentives for SSI beneficiaries to work. For instance, if a person with disabilities is under 22 and at school or in a vocational training program, $1,780 of his monthly income does not count against his SSI benefit, up to a yearly limit of $7,180.
The Social Security Administration also offers the PASS (Plan for Achieving Self Support) program for SSI beneficiaries who would like to work. Under this program, a beneficiary presents the SSA with a detailed plan for obtaining a specific type of employment. Once the SSA approves the plan, a beneficiary sets aside income and assets towards achieving her goal without having those funds count against her benefit. Funds can be used for things like child care, transportation, books and supplies, and additional education and training.
Many programs are available for people with special needs to seek employment if they would like to do so. Unfortunately, the rules for most of these programs are complicated and the SSA is often not very good at explaining them. Parental attention and planning well before a child turns 18, usually with the assistance of local vocational agencies and qualified special needs planners, offers the best chance for successfully navigating the maze of educational and employment opportunities.