Individuals with disabilities have greater opportunities for employment now than at any other time in history. They have been aided by important public education and policy initiatives such as the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Moreover, advancement in the public's understanding of disability, innovations in assistive technology, medical treatment and rehabilitation have helped to bring individuals with disabilities into the economic and social mainstream of American life.
Even with the passage of the IDEA, ADA and numerous other advances, national surveys over the last 10 years have consistently shown that at least 7.5 million individuals with significant disabilities elect not to work for fear of losing medical Federal disability benefits such as Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI). Although most want to gain employment and maximize their earning potential and independence, less than one-half of one percent leave the disability rolls and become self-sufficient (Disability Statistics Report (9), U.S. Department of Education, April, 1997).
The number one barrier for individuals with disabilities to enter the work force is their fear of losing ssm and SSI Medicaid and Medicare coverage as a consequence of work benefits (i.e., salary). This risk is an equal or greater work disincentive than the loss of cash benefits, because medical bills may be greater than any reasonable salary a person could hope to earn. Further, ajob may not offer health insurance, and even if it did, the insurance might not provide compensation for specific severe or chronic illnesses and pay for prescriptive and costly drugs and medical equipment.
Disability benefit spending for ssm and SSI totals $73 billion a year. If only one percent-or 75,000-of the 7. 5 million individuals with disabilities were to become employed, the U.S. Government would realize a savings of $3.5 billion over the work life of the beneficiaries (Senate Report No. 106-37, March 26,1999).
With advocates of the disability community gathered around him at the Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) Memorial, President Clinton signed (12/17/99) the landmark legislation entitled the Work Incentives Improvement Act (WIIA). The primary purpose of the law is to expand Medicaid and Medicare benefits so that even those individuals with greatest disability continue to receive health insurance coverage once they are employed.
The goals of the Act are to--
There is an untapped population of Americans with disabilities who are eager to work. The old system basically defied common sense and economic logic because it punished many who wished to work.
Dan Vachon, a 32-year-old with quadriplegia from Somersworth, NH, referred to the signing of the new law as "A great day for us. People in our society are pretty much judged by what they do. This will allow us to be able to go to work, earn a living, pay taxes, and become productive members of society, rather than people who kind of live off society. This gives people with disabilities a sense of self-worth" (The Boston Globe, December 18, 1999).
A sculpture of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in a wheelchair has recently been added to his memorial. Initially, the monument was overshadowed by the debate of whether the seated Roosevelt should be shown in a wheelchair. But, as The Wall Street Journal (January 25, 2000) stated, "polio was the crucible that transformed the young, callow Roosevelt into the man who did the things for which the nation chose to memorialize him." In a similar fashion, can we hope that the WIIA, the last piece of legislation a President of the U.S. signed in the 20th century, may have monumental consequences? Will the act replace barriers to work opportunities for individuals with disabilities with policies and programs based on inclusion, empowerment, and financial independence?