National Disability Employment Awareness Month has a different feel for me this year because I recently accepted an offer for my first professional job as the new Project Manager for the CareerACCESS Program at the World Institute on Disability (WID). To accept this position means much to me well beyond the actual work I will be responsible for at WID. Gaining employment has marked my ability to freely begin constructing the life I envision for myself.
My new job means that I can finally get off disability benefits, and no longer be restricted by the archaic laws that dictate our earning power and abilities. It is this freedom from the system that I’m most eager to experience. Being on disability has hindered my ability to confidently seek employment. As a physically disabled person, it was not the loss of the monetary income that was the issue; it was the fear of losing healthcare that dominated how I went about my employment journey. I need healthcare coverage to fully take care of my health needs. This is a barrier that prevents many disabled people from taking work opportunities. If we lose our healthcare benefits, then that can severely impact our quality of life, which could literally mean life or death for some of us if we do not have access to proper medical services and resources.
No one should have to choose between working and having health insurance and supports. If we choose to work, then we risk losing healthcare; if we choose not to work, then that means we choose to remain in the deep trenches of poverty (as being on disability causes us to be well below the Federal poverty line). To be forced to make such a choice is dehumanizing because it tells us that our desire to obtain employment is a “luxury.”
For most of my adult life, I have had to choose poverty until attaining viable employment. Though the economy has bounced back from when I graduated with my Bachelor’s degree in 2008 and Master’s degree in Social Work in 2012, it was still a priority for me to find jobs where I could make a decent salary, have healthcare, and be fully independent. For instance, I will finally have the financial means to move out of my state to the Washington, D.C. area, a move that I have wanted to do since visiting D.C. for the first time and feeling at home among disabled advocates. To get out of poverty was a necessity, and my new position gives me the freedom to do so.
“Freedom” is the word I purposefully use to describe the surge of emotions that washed over me when I learned that I had the job – emotions that declared that I was worthy of being employed, would be challenged in new ways, and would be able to continue making an impact in our community within the WID, a well-respected entity.
WID’s CareerACCESS pilot program will allow disabled young adults to gain employment opportunities without risking their disability benefits and healthcare. As a disabled millennial, I know all too well the struggles of seeking employment while on the disability rolls, and it makes me proud to accept a position where I can manage a program that will assist disabled young people across the country in achieving the goals and dreams they have by retaining employment and independence.
National Disability Employment Awareness Month 2016 marks the year where I can join the labor force as a disabled person. I can finally have money to save and no longer stress about being penalized for going over threshold limits, I can travel for pleasure and professional reasons, I can continue building my advocacy platform, and I can do simple things like go to the grocery store and buy what I want without having to stick to a stringent budget. It is these “luxuries” that society and the system have told me, and millions of us, that we cannot have, and with this new job, I can “adult” by my own rules, and take care of myself the way I deem fit. Though this freedom may seem trivial to some, it is extraordinary to me. I cannot wait to experience freedom and new opportunities.
Vilissa Thompson is a Licensed Master Social Worker (LMSW) from Winnsboro, SC. Vilissa is the Founder and CEO of Ramp Your Voice!, an organization focused on promoting self-advocacy and strengthening empowerment among people with disabilities. Being a Disability Rights Consultant, Writer, and Advocate affords Vilissa the opportunity to become a prominent leader and expert in addressing and educating the public and political figures about the plight of people with disabilities, especially women of color with disabilities. Being a disabled woman of color herself, sharing her life experiences, and tales from the women she has encountered during her advocacy work, has empowered her immensely because it validated the struggles and successes she endured in her young life.