Disabled College Student Attacked on MBTA Train in Boston, Mass.

by Vilissa K. Thompson, LMSW

Earlier this month, a college student with a disability was brutally attacked while riding the MBTA train in Boston, Massachusetts.  The student, whose name has not been release to the public, was 21 years old, and living with cerebral palsy.  The student was verbally and physically assaulted by a 63 years old man named Thomas Kennedy.  Kennedy, reportedly ranked of alcohol, sat next to the student on the train, and began hurling ethnic and homophobic insults, then progressed to punching and kicking the student.

The student was taken to Boston Medical Center for treatment from the injuries he sustained from the violent attack.  The police was able to identify Kennedy as the attacker by using the surveillance cameras that were located inside Downtown Crossing.  At the time of this article, Kennedy was later arrested on the day of the attack, and charged.

Disabled Passenger Catching Subway TrainThis story caught my attention because the use of public transportation, whether it is subways/trains, buses, cabs, etc., is something that people with disabilities rely heavily on, especially if you live in a city like Boston.  No one should fear being physically or verbally violated from riding the train or bus; everyone has the right to utilize public transportation without being harassed or victimized because of their disability status, or other social identifiers.

Discrimination and assaults of people with disabilities when it comes to public transportation is not uncommon.  There are several stories of bus drivers refusing to assist wheelchair users by unloading the elevator lifts so that they can board the bus, bus drivers not stopping to pick up wheelchair users, and bus and train stops being inaccessible for those with disabilities.  All of these incidences violate the federal rights of people with disabilities to utilize services that are for public use.

My experiences with public transportation has been pleasant; however, I know that is not the case for some of you, whether disabled or not.  If you have been discriminated against and/or victimized while using public transportation, share your experiences with me.  Where the perpetrator(s) arrested?  Was disciplinary action taken against public transit employee(s) who refused to serve you because you were disabled?  In order to make public transportation truly accessible and safe for all, we have to report these incidents and the individuals behind such acts.

(Featured headlining image:  Courtesy of Enable Magazine.)

Recognizing April 2014 as Fair Housing Month

by Vilissa K. Thompson, LMSW

Woman in Wheelchair In the Kitchen 1

The U. S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) declares April as Fair Housing Month.  Fair Housing Month is HUD’s way of commemorating the passage of the 1968 Fair Housing Act, which was enacted shortly after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  The Fair Housing Act prohibits housing discrimination based on race, color, national origin, religion, disability, sex, and family status.  More recent protections were added to prevent housing discrimination based on one’s source of income.

In addition to the legal protection of the aforementioned identifiers, twenty states, the District of Columbia, and more than 150 cities, have expanded the Fair Housing Act to forbid discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) individuals and families.  HUD established regulations to ensure that the Department’s core housing programs are available to all eligible recipients, regardless of their sexual orientation, in 2012.

The following quote from HUD’s Acting FHEO Assistant Secretary Bryan Greene explains why celebrating Fair Housing Month is so important:

Fair Housing Month is an opportunity for all of us to reflect on just how far we’ve come to make our housing more equitable and how far we still have to go to end housing discrimination.  Fair housing is about giving people the opportunity to pursue their dreams and whenever this opportunity is denied, not only do families lose, our entire nation loses.

When it comes to disability, HUD developed the Disability Rights in Private and Public Housing Initiative.  Below are the rights people with disabilities have under the Federal laws that focus on housing:

Prohibits discrimination against persons with disabilities.  It is unlawful for a housing provider to refuse to rent or sell to a person simply because of a disability.

Requires housing providers to make reasonable accommodations for persons with disabilities.  A reasonable accommodation is a change in rules, policies, practices, or services so that a person with a disability will have an equal opportunity to use and enjoy a dwelling unit or common space.

Requires housing providers to allow persons with disabilities to make reasonable modifications.  A reasonable modification is a structural modification that is made to allow persons with disabilities the full enjoyment of the housing and related facilities.

Requires that new covered multifamily housing be designed and constructed to be accessible.

(Excerpted from HUD’s Disability Rights in Housing webpage.)

This year’s theme is “Fair Housing Is Your Right:  Use It!”  HUD aims to raise awareness about your housing rights, and discuss the overt and covert forms of housing discrimination that still persists today.  I have read and written stories about housing discrimination, and am aware that key legislation like the Fair Housing Act are steps toward the right direction in creating equality and justice; however, more has to be done to ensure that all Americans, regardless of their disability status and other identifiers, are afforded the same opportunities to obtain housing that fits their needs.

During Fair Housing Month, how do you plan to ramp your voice about the housing discriminatory practices that exist to prevent people with disabilities, LGBT members, minorities, and other groups from accessing housing?  If you have experienced such discrimination in your quest in obtaining housing, are you willing to share your story?  What actions can be taken within your community to bridge the gaps in creating available housing options for those with disabilities, minorities, LGBT members, and other groups?  Share your stories, thoughts, and ideas with me to commemorate this observance.

(Featured headlining image:  Courtesy of the New York Times.)

The Need for Congress to Pass the ABLE Act

by Vilissa K. Thompson, LMSW

U.S. Capitol Building 1

The ABLE Act has the potential to improve the financial and employability statuses of people with disabilities in this country, if enacted.  The Achieve a Better Life Experience (ABLE) Act gained the attention of the disability community when it was first introduced into Congress on February 13, 2013.  The ABLE Act was not decided on last year due to the fact that the Congressional session ended before the bill could be considered; however, it has the support of over 400 co-sponsors in the House and Senate.  Having such a large amount of support gives many disability advocates, including yours truly, great hope that the Act will be considered and passed this year.

The purpose of the ABLE Act is to prevent disabled savers from losing their benefits by affording them the opportunity to open special tax advantaged saving accounts.  Under current policy, those who receive social security benefits such as Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and Medicaid cannot have saving assets of more than $2,000 in an account, and cannot earn income over $700 a month.  Those two financial restrictions unfairly places beneficiaries in the proverbial “a rock and a hard place.”  If beneficiaries have assets or income that exceed these financial thresholds, their benefits will be cut off.  If they decide not exceed these financial thresholds, then their employment and independence opportunities will be severely reduced.

I will give you a fictional example of the “rock and a hard place” choices people with disabilities like myself endure when it comes to wanting to be independent, but fear losing one’s benefits:

“Anita” was offered a part-time telecommuting position that would pay her the current minimum wage rate of $7.25 an hour.  Anita currently receives SSI and Medicaid benefits because she has a physical disability.  In order to keep her benefits, Anita could only work 24 hours a week, which would total $174 a week of earned income for her.  With this weekly schedule, Anita would earn $696 a month before taxes, which would put her under the $700 monthly financial threshold amount by $4.  

Anita would have to report her new income source to the Social Security Administration (SSA), which would take into consideration her total earnings, and not the amount Anita actually brings home after taxes.  The SSA has a special mathematical formula it utilizes to figure how much of Anita’s earned income should be counted against her benefits.  Anita’s monthly wage before taxes was $696; SSA would subtract 85 from this amount, and then divide that amount by 2 to figure how much her SSI benefits for that month should be reduced.  So, $696 – 85 would equal $611.  $611 divided by 2 would be $305.50.  Social Security would count $305.50 against Anita benefits, which would reduce her SSI benefits amount from $721 a month to $415.50 a month.  (The 2014 cost of living adjustment (COLA) for SSI beneficiaries is $721.)

This gross reduction of SSI does nothing to elevate Anita out of poverty.  Anita would have only $1,111.50 ($415.50 in reduced SSI, and the $696 (before taxes) she earned from working) to live off each month, which is not enough to cover the basic human needs of food, housing, and clothing.  This example is not hypothetical; it is fact.  This is the dreadful choice people with disabilities have to make:  do I work and put my benefits in jeopardy, or do I live off $721 a month that will keep me deep in poverty, and not allow me to be able to afford housing, transportation, entertainment, have an emergency fund, “nest egg” savings, and other “luxuries” that most take for granted?

This is why the passage of the ABLE Act is imperative – it would extinguish the current barrier of working and saving by ensuring that money saved through ABLE accounts would not be counted against the federal benefits an individual receives.  The ABLE Act would ease financial strains by allowing the tax-free saving accounts to cover qualified, essential expenses such as medical and dental care, community based supports, employment training, assistive technology, housing, education, and transportation.

The bill would assist in supplementing the benefits they already receive from private insurances, Medicaid, SSI, their employment, and other sources.  An ABLE account would provide people with disabilities the same types of flexible saving tools that other Americans have through college savings accounts, health savings accounts, and individual retirement accounts (IRAs).  Returning to our example, if the ABLE Act passed, Anita would be able to open an ABLE account where she could deposit her earned income and keep her SSI and Medicaid benefits intact.  This newfound freedom would allow people with disabilities to work without the fear of being penalized.

Like millions of Americans with disabilities, I am anxiously waiting for the passage of the ABLE Act.  From a personal standpoint, the ABLE Act would open a plethora of doors for me as an entrepreneur and a freelance writer.  Not having to worry about how much I earn or how much I have saved would be a joyous moment.  People with disabilities want the same things as everyone else – to work, have healthcare coverage, and be able to living independently and support themselves and those they love.  The ABLE Act would turn those hopes into reality.  Please urge your federal representatives to support and pass the ABLE Act this year because it is long overdue.

(Featured headlining image:  Courtesy of The Denver Channel.)

Hospital to pay $75,000 for Discrimination against Child Care Worker with Cerebral Palsy

by Vilissa K. Thompson, LMSW

In late February 2014, a hospital was ordered to pay $75,000 for violating the federal anti-discrimination laws when it refused to hire a volunteer who had a disability.  The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) Chicago District Office was responsible for processing the charges of discrimination that the volunteer alleged to have taken place.

Disabled Worker 5The Bright Beginnings of Osceola County, a day care center operated by the Osceola Community Hospital in Sibley Iowa, was accused of failing to hire a volunteer employee into a paid position due to her having cerebral palsy.  The volunteer was fully qualified for the position, and in fact, had a job where she drove a school bus.  When the EEOC conducted its investigation on the volunteer’s claims, the agency found evidence that the hospital purposefully refused to hire her, in fear that her disability would cause her to not be able to fully tend to the children that would be under her care.

The discrimination the EEOC discovered was in direct violation of Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).  Title I under the ADA focuses on employment, and here is a summary of what Title I says about employing people with disabilities:

Employers with 15 or more employees may not discriminate against qualified people with disabilities in hiring, promotion, compensation, or any other aspect of employment.

A “qualified person” is an individual with a disability who is able to perform the essential functions of the job, with or without reasonable accommodations.

(Excerpted from McGuire Associates’ Americans with Disabilities Act Fact Sheet)

(Reasonable accommodations could include providing adaptive equipment such as an adjustable work desk, modifying the employee’s work schedule, etc.; basically any changes that would not prove to be a hardship for the employer.)

Title I also covers inquiring about a prospective employee’s disability status, and when medical and psychological tests can be conducted:

An employer may not inquire about the medical conditions or disability of a job applicant prior to making a qualified job offer.

Similarly, medical and psychological tests can be given only after a job offer, and only if such tests are directly related to the job.

(Excerpted from McGuire Associates’ Americans with Disabilities Act Fact Sheet)

A quote from EEOC Chicago District Regional Attorney John Hendrickson in the article about the hospital discrimination case resonated with me, and I wanted to share it because it is something that ALL organizations should remember:

“Sometimes it looks like organizations engaged in the health care field or in the performance of other ‘good works’ consider it impossible for them to have discriminated — or to be challenged for having discriminated — particularly when it comes to the ADA.”

“But our experience has been that all organizations, whatever their line of business and however they are organized, are vulnerable to falling into patterns or acts of discrimination if they do not consciously make compliance with federal anti-discrimination laws a priority.”

(Excerpted from the EEOC Newsroom Release.)

Being ignorant of the law is no excuse to not abide by it, or violate the rights of others.  With the labor force participation rate for people with disabilities being at 19.1% in February 2014, in comparison to those without disabilities being at 68.5%, discriminating against those with disabilities is hindering our efforts to seek and obtain living wages to improve our quality of life.  Just as I reiterated the importance for private business owners who serve the public to be familiar with the law when it comes to service animals, it it just as imperative for hiring personnel, organizations, and corporations to be aware of and abide by what is outlined under Title I of the ADA when it comes to employing those with disabilities.

If you are a person with a disability who believes that you have experienced employment-related discrimination under the ADA, do file your complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.  The EEOC has 15 District Offices across the nation that are capable of investigating your case.  If you are in the Palmetto State (South Carolina), your District Office is located in Charlotte, NC, and the Local Office is located in Greenville, SC.

Reporting such violations will decrease the occurrence of this practice.  In order to effect change and equality, you have to ramp your voice so that justice and respect for the law will prevail.

(Featured headline image:  Courtesy of Woman.TheNest.)

The ADA, Service Animals, and Places of Business

Service Dog 1

The article I wrote in January about a restaurant owner’s refusal to serve a veteran with a service dog raised questions about how businesses are to respond to people with disabilities who use service animals.  Today, I wanted to share what the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) have to say about service animals in privately owned businesses that serve the public.

The ADA has a frequently asked questions page about this matter, and I decided to select a few question and answer statements from the page that business owners need to know in order to not offend those who use service animals or violate the mandate.  The key “take home points” within each response will be in bold.

How can I tell if an animal is really a service animal and not just a pet?

A:  Some, but not all, service animals wear special collars and harnesses. Some, but not all, are licensed or certified and have identification papers. If you are not certain that an animal is a service animal, you may ask the person who has the animal if it is a service animal required because of a disability. However, an individual who is going to a restaurant or theater is not likely to be carrying documentation of his or her medical condition or disability. Therefore, such documentation generally may not be required as a condition for providing service to an individual accompanied by a service animal.

Although a number of states have programs to certify service animals, you may not insist on proof of state certification before permitting the service animal to accompany the person with a disability.

What must I do when an individual with a service animal comes to my business?

A:  The service animal must be permitted to accompany the individual with a disability to all areas of the facility where customers are normally allowed to go. An individual with a service animal may not be segregated from other customers.

I have always had a clearly posted “no pets” policy at my establishment. Do I still have to allow service animals in?

A:  Yes. A service animal is not a pet. The ADA requires you to modify your “no pets” policy to allow the use of a service animal by a person with a disability. This does not mean you must abandon your “no pets” policy altogether but simply that you must make an exception to your general rule for service animals.

My county health department has told me that only a guide dog has to be admitted. If I follow those regulations, am I violating the ADA?

A:  Yes, if you refuse to admit any other type of service animal on the basis of local health department regulations or other state or local laws. The ADA provides greater protection for individuals with disabilities and so it takes priority over the local or state laws or regulations.

I operate a private taxicab and I don’t want animals in my taxi; they smell, shed hair and sometimes have “accidents.” Am I violating the ADA if I refuse to pick up someone with a service animal?

A:  Yes. Taxicab companies may not refuse to provide services to individuals with disabilities. Private taxicab companies are also prohibited from charging higher fares or fees for transporting individuals with disabilities and their service animals than they charge to other persons for the same or equivalent service.

What if a service animal barks or growls at other people, or otherwise acts out of control?

A:  You may exclude any animal, including a service animal, from your facility when that animal’s behavior poses a direct threat to the health or safety of others. For example, any service animal that displays vicious behavior towards other guests or customers may be excluded. You may not make assumptions, however, about how a particular animal is likely to behave based on your past experience with other animals. Each situation must be considered individually.

Although a public accommodation may exclude any service animal that is out of control, it should give the individual with a disability who uses the service animal the option of continuing to enjoy its goods and services without having the service animal on the premises.

All excerpts are courtesy of the Frequently Asked Questions page about service animals and businesses.

Though some of the statements I highlighted may seem to be ones that should be understood by all, they are not. People with disabilities are denied service and full participation in establishments utilized by the public each and every day in this country, and abroad.

Being ignorant of the law is no excuse when breaking it, especially when it infringes on the rights of a person to use a service or facility.  Business owners have to be knowledgeable about what their responsibilities are when it comes to the law, and people with disabilities have to speak out when their rights have been violated, whether intentionally or not.

Every week, I come across stories of people with disabilities, regardless of their ability, experiencing discrimination at alarming rates.  2014 will mark the 24th anniversary of the enactment of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and we are still fighting to “get in” and be treated as equal.  How much longer will the fight continue before the legislation is respected and followed, and we are given the opportunity to fully participate in all facets of society?

(Featured headlining image:  Courtesy of Wet Noses Dog Treats.)

Federal Contract Workers with Disabilities Included In Minimum Wage Executive Order

by Vilissa K. Thompson, LMSW

Pres. Obama 1Recently, President Obama signed an executive order to increase the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour for federal contract workers.  This action will benefit individuals who are contracted with the federal government who are making less than this newly approved rate.  (The current minimum wage rate is $7.25 an hour.)  The minimum wage hike for federal workers will become effective on January 1st, 2015.  Raising the minimum wage coincides with the President’s plans to increase opportunities for the American people.

When the President announced his executive order concerning the minimum wage increase during his State of the Union Address last month, there were one particular group who were left out of his initiative – federal workers with disabilities.  The White House and the Department of Labor did not intend to allow people with disabilities working under federal contracts with special certificates to receive the new minimum wage increase.  The failure to include people with disabilities who work for the federal government was met with great opposition, and those within the disability community advocated for federal workers with disabilities to be included in the President’s order.

Under the current law, federal workers with disabilities may be paid less than the $7.25/hour rate under specialized certificate programs.  This means that it is legal to pay federal workers with disabilities incredibly less than their able-bodied colleagues, even though they are doing the same job.  The current provision creates a disproportionate living wage gap between disabled and able-bodied federal contracted workers.  Without the inclusion of people with disabilities in the President’s order, certain disabled workers would have continued to earn a living wage as little as 22 cents an hour.

With the unemployment rate for people with disabilities being 13.3%, and the labor force participation rate being 18.2% for January 2014, it is imperative for the employability of people with disabilities to be on the consciousness of the President, and our representatives.  Despite being the largest minority group in the country, people with disabilities are not fully integrated within our workforce system, even though there are a great number of programs and services in place to increase employment opportunities for this population.  This “oversight” by the White House and the Labor Department before disability advocates ramped their voices signaled how dire it is for people with disabilities to be politically aware, and involved.

This executive order is a steppingstone in the right direction to increase the minimum wage for all Americans, but what can be done to ensure that people with disabilities are not overlooked or dismissed when future plans are constructed to improve the well-being and economic status of those in this country?  How can we better advocate for ourselves, and demand that those with influence take our needs and concerns seriously?  Share your thoughts and suggestions with me because excluding people with disabilities from momentous initiatives such as this can no longer suffice.

(Featured headlining image:  Courtesy of Black Enterprise.)

Seattle Seahawks Fullback Derrick Coleman Shares His Empowering Story & Inspires Young Fans

Regardless of who you are rooting for when it comes to the Super Bowl, there is no denying the empowering story of Derrick Coleman, Seattle Seahawks’ fullback.  Earlier this month, Duracell released a commercial featuring Derrick Coleman that showcased how he remained steadfast in his ambition to play professional football, and his refusal to be defined by his different ability:

The commercial has captured the attention of many across the nation, especially those within the hearing-impaired community.  At the age of three, Coleman was diagnosed with an incurable hearing impairment that caused him to wear a hearing aid.  Coleman endured the negativity of people telling him to forgo his dreams because of his hearing impairment.  Instead of allowing such statements and attitudes to influence his life’s path, he decided to work harder to achieve his goals.

Coleman had faced setbacks on his journey to becoming a professional athlete. His name was not called during the 2012 NFL Draft.Though he was eventually signed by the Minnesota Vikings, he was cut right before the start of the season. Most people would have given up on their dream after experiencing such crushing defeats, but not Coleman.

After being cut from the Vikings, he decided to go back home, stay in shape, and remain connected to the sport he loved by working at Troy High School as the running back coach. His determination and talent led to him being signed by the Seattle Seahawks in December 2012 and becoming the first legally deaf offensive player in NFL history.

Joining the NFL was his great career aspiration, but the focus Coleman has now is to inspire children with disabilities to achieve their own dreams.  In an interview with Sports News, Coleman stated that he “wanted to inspire people, especially children, to trust the power within and achieve their goals.”  Coleman’s youngest fans are indeed watching his every move, and are encouraging him to continue to break glass ceilings.

Riley Kovalcik wrote a letter to Coleman, and shared that she and her twin sister had something in common with the NFL star – they, too, wear hearing aids.  In the letter, Riley remarked at how she understood what Coleman goes through, she encouraged him to do his best, and stated that she had faith in him.  The letter was shared on Twitter by Riley’s father, Jake Kovalcik, and has since gone viral on social media.

Being moved by the letter, Derrick Coleman wrote a response to the girls, and tweeted his letter.  Coleman thanked the girls for showing their support to him and the Seahawks, and stated that they are more than capable of achieving their hopes and desires, regardless of their hearing ability.

As a person who has moderate hearing loss due to my disability, and wears two hearing aids, seeing Coleman’s story has had a profound impact on myself, like countless others.  Coleman’s story may be considered “inspiring,” but in actuality, he made the conscious decision to not allow his seemingly “limitation” to control his destiny.  Coleman represents the millions of people with different abilities in this country who are shattering glass ceilings and making a name for themselves in their respective fields.

We need more of these stories to be shared so that children, adolescents, and adults with disabilities will know that the only person who can truly hinder their progress is themselves.  Representation of people with disabilities in the media, sports, etc. is needed, and I am proud that Coleman is representing the millions like Riley and myself through his sportsmanship and by sharing his life story.

Duracell Derrick Coleman Commercial (Extended Cut)

Denied Service at a Restaurant Because of Service Dog

by Vilissa K. Thompson, LMSW

In Mooresville, North Carolina, a disabled veteran was denied service at a restaurant because of his service dog.  Benjamin Wardrid, a veteran who served in the Iraq War, experienced his first taste of discrimination as someone with a disability who uses a service animal.  Wardrid was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, upon returning home from serving in the U.S. Army.  Beau, Wardrid’s service dog, assists in ameliorating the symptoms of PTSD Wardrid may experience in his day-to-day life.

Service Dog in Training 1Last Wednesday, Wardrid was prevented from being served at a local restaurant while on a family outing because he had his service dog with him.  Wardrid knew that his rights had been violated, and he and Beau returned to the restaurant the following day accompanied by two police officers.  During the second visit, Wardrid and Beau were finally allowed in, and Wardrid was served.  The owner of the restaurant provided an off-camera statement that he has had “bad experiences” with service animals in the past.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) clearly outlines privately-own businesses’ responsibilities that serve the general population when it comes to service animals:

Privately owned businesses that serve the public, such as restaurants, hotels, retail stores, taxicabs, theaters, concert halls, and sports facilities, are prohibited from discriminating against individuals with disabilities.

The ADA requires these businesses to allow people with disabilities to bring their service animals onto business premises in whatever areas customers are generally allowed.

The ADA defines a service animal as:

Any guide dog, signal dog, or other animal individually trained to provide assistance to an individual with a disability.  Service animals perform some of the functions and tasks that the individual with a disability cannot perform for him or herself.

(Excerpt from the ADA’s Commonly Asked Questions about Service Animals in Places of Business webpage.)

The ADA clearly states that a service animal is NOT a pet.  When a service animal is assisting its owner, they are considered to be “working.”  Though some people may not be aware, it is discouraged to pet or stroke a service animal while working (especially if wearing a harness); to do so distracts the animal who has been trained to provide a service.

When this story was brought to my attention, I was shocked at the lackluster excuse the owner of the restaurant provided regarding his refusal to serve Wardrid.  Dogs who provide such services undergo vigorous selection and training processes; dogs with an aggressive temperament or demeanor are not selected to serve in this manner.  In my experience, the service dogs I have come into contact with were very calm and friendly when they were “off,” and attentive to their owner’s needs when “working.”

Regardless of the restaurant owner’s previous encounters with service animals, Wardrid should not have been denied because he had a service dog.  Any hesitations the owner may have had could have been resolved in a different manner; for instance, he could have brought his concerns to Wardrid’s attention, and an alternate seating arrangement could have been chosen.  Or Wardrid could have eased the owner’s concerns by discussing Beau’s demeanor, and how he would not be disruptive.

The ignorance or “fear” displayed by the owner is disturbing because it makes me, and possibly others who hear this story, wonder how many other “Wardrids and Beaus” were denied at this restaurant before this incident made news.  I also wonder about the treatment of people with disabilities at this restaurant; do people with disabilities feel welcomed, or is there an air of hostility that exists?

Have any of you witnessed discrimination against those who used service animals at public venues?  Have you been the victim of such discriminatory acts?  If so, how did you react, and what was the outcome?  I would like to have the opportunity to learn of your experiences and responses surrounding this matter.

(Featured headlining image:  Courtesy of Petfinder.)

Disability Claim Approved! Winning the Appeals Process for SSI

Social Security Administration
Social Security Administration

Most anyone who has gone through the Social Security or SSI disability system finds out how challenging it is, since most claims are denied the first time out. The chances of approval do go up substantially for those who appeal and have a disability lawyer to guide them through the process. Below is some information about the appeals and hearing process for disability claims.

Appeals Process

The appeals process for Social Security disability and SSI includes several levels. After the first round when the claim is denied, most states offer a chance at what is termed reconsideration. This must be requested formally within sixty days of the denial date. Because the process is complex, it is highly advisable to enlist the services of an experienced disability denial lawyer. Found online at www.disabilitydenials.com, a person can read more about what is needed for an experienced legal professional to help claimants prepare for and manage the appeals process.

Appeals Preparation

The most important thing to recognize with disability claims is that the decisions will be made based upon the information that has been provided. Therefore, claimants need to know what is in the file and have their own copies available. This is where having a lawyer on the case is very beneficial, since they know how the law works and what is necessary to establish and win the claim.

In order to respond to requests, claimants must understand their medical condition, what it entails and what doctors have reported. There is also a detailed work history and other data that Social Security and any disability claim will require. For instance, claimants must have this information at hand so that when it is requested it can be provided correctly. Otherwise, claims could drag out much longer than they need to or even continue to be denied.

Winning Disability Awards

1. Medical Records – One of the more important types of information that needs to be available are updated medical records. Hearings may take place a year or more after an initial claim is made and SSA may cease to gather medical evidence. Therefore, the file may not include the latest medical information. A disability lawyer representing the claim would be handling these tasks, which is another reason to enlist their services. In any case, claimants must gather all their medical updates and keep them handy to respond to SSA requests and be prepared for hearings.

2. Personal Records – The SSA will continue to request information about the disabling condition both in writing and at hearings. Therefore, claimants must keep good notes about how they feel and what they are able to do and not do. For instance, any activities that could be done prior and cannot since the condition should be noted. The precise reasons that a claimant is unable to perform their customary work-related responsibilities needs to be detailed so that when asked, the information is conveyed correctly to the administrative law judge (ALJ). Otherwise, decisions rendered without all of the pertinent information usually result in further claim denials.

Hearings

After the first appeal is denied, claimants may request a hearing before an ALJ. The best way to win any appeal is to understand the process so that it may be navigated more efficiently. The average time that Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) claimants wait for a hearing is around 400 days and as long as a year or more.

Statistically, the chances of winning any disability case are much higher when the claimant has engaged an attorney experienced in disability law. In these cases, attorneys usually do not charge fees until the claim is won, in accordance with the law. In fact, without an experienced disability lawyer, there is a very strong chance that the case will be denied repeatedly. As suggested online at www.disabilitydenials.com, anyone filing for Social Security Disability should seek counsel as soon as possible to greatly increase their chances of winning disability claims.

AbleRoad: New Technology Connecting People to Accessible Venues

by Vilissa K. Thompson, LMSW

Hotel Sign 1AbleRoad is a new technological tool that aims to inform people with disabilities about accessible places and spaces in their communities, and across the globe.  With the advances of the internet and the worldwide use of social media, new websites and applications (apps) are created every day to assist in establishing a more equal playing field for people with disabilities, both domestically and abroad.  As a person with a disability, I am constantly searching for innovative tools that makes inclusion of people with disabilities a high priority.

AbleRoad is a tool that people with disabilities can use to become apprised about the accessible public businesses in their area, based on the reviews provided by others with disabilities, their families, and caregivers.  AbleRoad is founded by Kevin G. McGuire, a wheelchair user who knows first-hand the challenges of finding accessible locations when travelling within and outside of his community.  AbleRoad allows reviewers to rate venues based on wheelchair/mobility accessibility, and ease of access for people with varying degrees of visual, hearing, and cognitive impairments.  When a review is provided, AbleRoad makes the information public on its website where others can read the experiences of those with similar disabilities who have visited the venues.  Creating a space where people with disabilities can share such experiences with one another makes it easier to research the accessibility of a business beforehand.  Having this prior knowledge eliminates the possibility of becoming frustrated when arriving at a venue that has no disability accommodations or very poor accommodations available.  AbleRoad is also connected with Yelp, so those who use the website or AbleRoad’s mobile app can view the ratings provided on both Yelp and AbleRoad.

The idea behind the creation of AbleRoad is pure genius.  As more and more people with disabilities are travelling within and outside their countries, knowing which places are accessible and which ones to avoid is invaluable information to have at one’s fingertips.  As a wheelchair user, I am always researching businesses to discover if they have access before I make plans to patronize them.  Even though we have the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) that outlines the importance of accessibility and providing reasonable accommodations for people of all abilities, there are many businesses that are non-compliant with the law and/or have the minimum accommodations available that makes it more challenging than helpful to feel included when travelling or enjoying a night out with family and friends.

Another great advantage of this resource is that it informs businesses about how much of an aid or hindrance the accommodations that currently exists are to people with disabilities.  Businesses should not view negative reviews provided on AbleRoad’s website as a threat to their business; instead, such reviews can be considered as valuable insight as to how to improve the experiences of all people who seek out their venue to fulfill a particular purpose.  Having such knowledge allows businesses to make the appropriate changes to be more accessible, and businesses are encouraged to respond to negative reviews and discuss how the barriers to accessibility were remedied.

This is only one resource that has been established for people with disabilities who are always on the go.  Are there similar tools like AbleRoad available that you are aware of?  If so, share them with me so that I can spotlight their significance in the fight to bridge the gap in accessibility and inclusion of people with disabilities in our society.

(Featured headline image:  Courtesy of The Guardian.)

Zero Tolerance Policies Hurt Minorities and Students with Disabilities in Pennsylvania’s Public Schools

There has been many heated discussions throughout the country regarding the disparities of zero tolerance policies implemented in our nation’s public schools.  Last week, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Pennsylvania released a report that outlined startling statistics regarding the number of African-American, and Latino students, and students with disabilities who were disproportionately affected by zero tolerance policies within Pennsylvania’s public schools.

The report, titled “Beyond Zero Tolerance:  Discipline and Policing Pennsylvania’s Public Schools” disclosed the high numbers of minorities and students with disabilities being suspended at greater rates than their white and able-bodied peers.  During the 2011-2012 academic year, there were over 166,000 out-of-school suspensions issued by school districts.  To give you a better understanding of this figure, 10 out of 100 students in Pennsylvania’s public schools were suspended during this particular academic term.

Zero Tolerance 1The disparities in race and disability are taken into account when one reviews the number of minority and students with disabilities that attend Pennsylvania’s public schools, and how these students comprised the high percentages of students who received disciplinary action that resulted in suspension, expulsions, and arrests.  African American students made up only 13.6% of the population that attended Pennsylvania schools, but they accounted for close to half of the out-of-school suspensions reported by school districts.  One out of every 10 Latino students were suspended at least once during the 2011-2012 school year; this is the highest figure reported concerning Latino students and suspension in the country, according to the ACLU.  Students with disabilities did not fair much better; students with disabilities were suspended at a 11.1% rate.  In comparison to their peers, students with disabilities faced the fate of being twice as likely to experience suspension.

In the ACLU’s report, the organization noted the probable cause for these disparities revolved around the fact that zero tolerance policies cast out a very wide net that catches “undesirable,” or disruptive behaviors and actions.  These behaviors and actions were deemed unacceptable by school districts, and are judged as grounds for punishment.

The ACLU proposed several suggestions for school districts to consider when it comes to the disparities surrounding zero tolerance policies.  Full-scale review of current suspension policies, utilize intensive disciplinary actions only when there is a imminent danger to safety of the offending student and/or others, and fully evaluating the true effectiveness of law enforcement officials within the schools were a few of the recommendations issued by the ACLU.

Reading the striking findings of this report hopefully enlightens us about the covert inequities of blanket polices like zero tolerance in our public schools.  Such blanket policies are detrimental to the students who are more likely to be disproportionately represented and unfairly labeled as “troublemakers.”  These policies also prove to be inflexible in appropriately discerning between behaviors that are indeed disruptive to the school environment and/or place students and staff in danger versus behaviors conducted that may be due to cultural differences, problems experienced by students within the home environment, cognitive limitations, etc.  Without taking these possible reasons for the occurrence of these behaviors into consideration, we end up mislabeling these students as recalcitrant and fail to look deeper into the actual cause(s) of their misconduct.

To the educators, parents, and students out there, what issues have your school districts encountered with zero tolerance policies?  Have your school district reported similar trends in high percentages of suspensions, expulsions, and arrest among minority students and students with disabilities?  If so, what steps have been taken to ameliorate these disparities?  Do you believe zero tolerance policies work effectively at extinguishing all forms of misconduct in schools, no matter how minor or severe the behavior?  Tell me your thoughts and experiences by sending an email to Vilissa@rampyourvoice.com, or by visiting my website, Ramp Your Voice!

(Featured headline image:  Courtesy of WTAE.) 

October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month

On September 30, 2013, President Barack Obama issued a proclamation declaring October 2013 as National Disability Employment Awareness Month.  In his proclamation, the President urged employers and those in hiring positions to seek out individuals with disabilities to participate in our workforce and contribute their unique gifts and talents to our society.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor Office of Disability Employment Policy’s website, as of August 2013, only 20.5% of people with disabilities in America were active participants in the American labor force; those without disabilities made up 69.1% of the labor force.  The overall unemployment rate in America for August 2013 was 7.1%; the unemployment rate of people with disabilities, however, was 14.1%.

At the time of the article, the figures for September 2013 have not been updated onto the Department’s website due to the government shutdown. With people with disabilities making up such a small percentage of the workforce and yet a very high percentage of unemployment when compared to their able-bodied counterparts, this puts the population at an incredible disadvantage socially, financially, educationally, mentally, and hinders their ability to become independent members in society.

Disability Employment Month, 2013The observance of National Disability Employment Awareness Month shines a spotlight on the struggles people with disabilities endure in their journey to being viewed as desirable employing candidates.  There are many myths that hiring personnel and corporations have about hiring those with disabilities.

Some of these myths are:  the accommodations that a person may require will be too costly to afford; fear that people with disabilities may not perform near or at the same levels as their able-bodied peers; people with disabilities do not have the required educational backgrounds and skill sets needed for the positions that are available; and people with disabilities do not desire to work.

All of these myths are erroneous, yet they pervade the minds of hiring professionals who, either intentionally or unintentionally, doubt the potential of aspiring employable candidates who are disabled.

There are several organizations that exist to debunk the myths about hiring those with disabilities, and provide these employable individuals with a platform to showcase their skills and abilities.  One prominent campaign is the What Can You Do? campaign, an initiative that seeks to boost the employability of those with disabilities by encouraging organizations to recognize the many talents and values those within this group possesses, and the gains (especially financial) their organizations could reap by hiring these individuals.

Another newcomer in pushing the employability of people with disabilities to the forefront is Out of Step, an online marketplace connecting people with disabilities to potential employers and customers.  Out of Step allows people with disabilities to create profiles where they can list the skills, services, and knowledge they have that could prove useful to those who are in need of such resources.

DiversityInc has created two downloadable files that discusses the history of the disability employment observance, which began in 1945 by Congress, and was held for only a week.  During that time, it was called “National Employ the Physically Handicapped Week.”  In 1962, the observance was renamed to include individuals of all different abilities, not just those with physical limitations.

By 1988, the name of the observance was changed to “National Disability Employment Awareness Month,” and was expanded to a full month.  Educating society about the historical account of the observance, along with the statistics of employability among people with disabilities is imperative in knowing where we as a society have been successful in providing employment opportunities to those with disabilities, and where the remaining gaps are still prevalent.

To organizations and hiring personnel:  Do your organization purposefully seek out employable individuals who are disabled?  If so, how and why did your company make this a priority?  If your company has not made it a priority to hire those within this group, what reasoning, myths, and/or stereotypes do your agency/company hold true in your inaction or reluctance?  What are the potential losses your organization may be enduring by not taking advantage of the skills and abilities of those within this population?  Can your company or organization afford to be behind the curve in comparison to organizations that purposefully seek those with disabilities?

If anyone is willing to answer any of the following questions, please contact me via email, Vilissa@rampyourvoice.com.  I would love to hear why or why not your company has made hiring those with disabilities a priority.  

 

(Featured headline image:  Courtesy of Independent.co.uk)

Finding the Consumer in the Midst of Medicare

The consumer is often caught in the middle when it comes to a provider presenting a reasonably priced product while striving to stay out of the red.  The American government is no different when it comes to Medicare and its beneficiaries.  The Medicare program provided assistance to over 49,000,000 people in 2012,1 and this number is expected to continue to increase as Baby Boomers become eligible for the federal program.  Our government is currently struggling with how to assess this growing demand with limited financial resources.  In all the budget and deficit debates, it can be easy to forget the most important part of the equation which is the medicare beneficiaries.

Medicare recipients currently pay different premiums for each of the four parts of Medicare.  Most individuals do not pay a monthly premium for Medicare Part A if they or their spouse have paid into the Medicare system via payroll taxes.  Individuals that do not meet this criteria can purchase Part A for $441 per month.

Many people pay the standard premium of $104.90 per month for Part B, but some individual’s will have to pay more if their income from the previous two years is above $85,000.2  Premiums for Parts C and D differ depending on the individual plan that a consumer decides to purchase.  The four parts are designed to offer beneficiaries the most comprehensive insurance program that they can afford.

What if you can’t afford Medicare premiums and deductibles?  Federal assistance, in the form of Medicaid, is available for low-income individuals.  Medicare also has an Extra Help program available to assist with prescription drugs.  Some states also help their Medicare beneficiaries by means of two state programs:  the Medicare Savings Programs pays Part A and Part B deductibles while the State Pharmacy Assistance Program provides financial assistance for prescription drugs.3

Both federal and state governments have options available for Medicare beneficiaries who are limited by their financial resources.  However, the state programs are not offered in every state and some lower-income seniors may still find themselves receiving few health care options while individuals with more money have the ability to pick and choose an insurance plan that best fits their medical needs.  The federal plan that was originally created to help all seniors and other eligible citizens does not help all recipients equally.

Regardless of any underlying inequalities, Medicare is still a more affordable and efficient health insurance provider than many private companies.  In fact, Medicare is viewed quite favorably among the general public.  While more than half of Americans agree that the federal deficit should be corrected with a combination of increased taxes and decreased spending, 58% oppose any spending cuts to Medicare or Social Security.  Three quarters said the deficit could be cut without any major reductions to Medicare.4

The overall general approval of this welfare policy ensures, to a certain degree, that the program will continue to assist the elderly and the disabled in the struggle to have affordable health care.  General opinion also encourages politicians and policy makers to take a more unique approach when considering how to make the program easier on the government’s wallet without directly cutting funds.

Many different ideas are being tossed around in Congress when it comes to making Medicare more affordable.  Some propose adjusting the age requirement from 65 to 67.  Others argue that Medicare should be a means-tested program with higher income individuals testing out.  Some also argue that spending cuts can be removed from the equation all together if the issue of Medicare fraud is thoroughly corrected.  Consumers should expect to hear more about major changes to the Medicare program within the next few months but should not expect to see a decrease in their premiums or deductibles.

Medicare is a complex federal program and this complexity sheds some light onto how challenging it can be for consumers to afford health care in America.  This leads to an interesting debate on how to more effectively serve American citizens.  Should the focus be on reducing Medicare costs or on reducing the cost of health care as a whole?

There is a growing opinion that health care is an overall wasteful, inefficient, and poor quality institution that is in need of reform.  Such a reform could have huge implications for eligible Medicare beneficiaries and other Americans.  Unfortunately, it is much easier for politicians and Congress to discuss how to change Medicare rather than how to improve the entire American health care system.  In the meantime, consumers continue to get caught in the crossfire between the debate over Medicare coverage and Medicare cost.

Photo Credit: Medicare Prospective Payment System

1The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. (2013). Total number of Medicare beneficiaries, 2012. Retrieved from

2Social Security Administration. Social Security Administration, (2012). Medicare premiums: rules for higher-income beneficiaries (SSA Publication No.05-10536). Retrieved from Social Security Administration website:

3Medicare Resource Center. (n.d.). Frequently-asked medicare questions. Retrieved from

4Wessel, D. (2013, January 24). Whose budget fix is more popular?. The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved from

The Evolution and Implementation of Medicare

Since Medicare was created over 45 years ago, it has continuously evolved to meet the changing needs of society.  This has resulted in a system that strives to be more efficient, but in the process has become somewhat complicated if you are unfamiliar with the program.  The program is currently funded by a portion of payroll taxes, monthly premium deductions from Social Security checks, and Congress.  It is divided into four parts:

MedicarePart A: Hospital insurance – helps pay for inpatient care in a hospital or skilled nursing facility, some home health care and hospice care.

Part BMedical insurance – helps pay for doctors’ services and many other medical services and supplies that are not covered by hospital insurance

Part CMedicare Advantage – people with Parts A and B can choose to join a Medicare Advantage plan as offered by private companies and approved by Medicare.  You may have to pay a monthly premium for Medicare Advantage because of the extra benefits it offers.

Part DPrescription drug coverage – helps pay for medications doctors prescribe for treatment.1

The Medicare system that is in place today is not the same as it was in 1965.  As additional needs and concerns have become evident, the government has modified the social welfare policy to better fit the needs of the targeted population.  Originally, the program was only created to serve adults 65 and older with health insurance.  In 1972, the policy was expanded to include individuals younger than 65 with long-term disabilities and end-stage renal disease.

Medicare Part C was not implemented until 1997 under the Balanced Budget Act (BBA) and Part D was not legalized until 2003 under The Medicare Prescription Drug, Improvement, and Modernization Act.2  The program also originally paid for the entire costs of services as determined by the individual physician.  As Medicare costs began to grow, Congress decided to change the reimbursement system to provide fixed-rate paybacks for services.

Another prominent way in which Medicare has changed throughout the years is in regards to its cost to the consumer.  Medicare Part A and B have seen changes in the deductibles and premiums that individuals are responsible for paying.   Since Medicare’s creation, the deductible for Part A has increased from $40/year to $1,184/year in 2013.  The premium for Part B has increased from $3/month to $104.90/month for individuals with a yearly income of less than $85,000 in 2011.3 The rise in Medicare costs sheds some insight into how Medicare has had to evolve as medical costs increase and as the need for health insurance among the elderly and the disabled has increased.

As Medicare has changed over time, one thing remains constant. The program was established to help all eligible beneficiaries as a universal welfare policy.  An eligible individual can receive benefits regardless of which state they live in because Medicare is a federally operated program and the states are not involved in the program’s administration.4  However, there are some differences in how states approach Medigap services. Medigap, also known as Medicare supplemental insurance, refers to various private supplemental health insurance plans that are designed to assist Medicare beneficiaries with health care costs that are not covered by Medicare.

Insurance companies can only sell you standardized Medigap policies as they are regulated by federal and state laws.  In all but three states – Massachusetts, Minnesota, and Wisconsin – there are 10 standardized Medicare Supplement plans.  The three states that offer slightly different coverage had their own standardized Medigap plans prior to the enactment of the federal standardized regulations.5  For the most part, however, these three states offer Medigap plans that are very similar to those offered by other states.

Other social welfare policies, such as Medicaid, can differ dramatically from state to state because the federal government gives the states the freedom to distribute the money as they see fit.  As a federally operated program, Medicare exists to serve beneficiaries universally.  While the program has been expanded to cover more individuals, it has consistently covered individuals equally across state lines.

1US Social Security Administration. (2013, January 25).Medicare benefits. Retrieved from

2The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. (2010). Medicare: a timeline of key developments. Retrieved from

3Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, (2012). 2013 Medicare costs (Product No. 11579). Retrieved from Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services website:

4Health Assistance Partnership. (2012). Overview of the medicare program. Retrieved from

5Rapaport, C. Congressional Research Service, (2012).Medigap: a primer (Report No. R42745). Retrieved from Congressional Research Service website:

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