As he sits in his home studio mixing music samples in Miami, Diego Lopez, a Colombian American, is quietly, defying the odds. At 41, Lopez, the divorced father of two, is the President of Digital Noize, his own music production company, which has done musical scores for television programs in Latin America.
Today has been pretty typical in addition to working a full eight hour work day at his “day job” working for a music retail business, he will put in eight additional hours working at home, before his day is over.
Lopez, who has a form of muscular dystrophy, is a rarity. He is a person with a disability who is working in his chosen field. A startling number of people with disabilities are not. Seventy-five percent of the labor force who has a disability is unemployed or under-employed, the United States Department of Labor estimates.
Lopez, a homeowner, understands some of the reasons. Though he does hold down two jobs, he says the challenges of balancing work and living with a disability can be daunting.
“I provide in every way—financially and emotionally—for my family,” he said with pride.
But for many people with disabilities, the cost of being a person with a disability and working have forced some with disabilities to make hard choices.
Not working provides financial incentives including qualifying for special housing, with lower, government subsidized rents and almost guaranteed medical coverage through Medicare and/or Medicaid.
Though the medical needs remain identical, once individuals with disabilities earn over the government’s earning threshold, they are cut off.
To complicate matters further, those with disabilities often have difficulty getting medical coverage, because many insurance companies refuse to cover those with certain pre-existing conditions. Diego had that fear.
“I was a little worried that I was going to loose my Medicaid benefits,” he said.
After meeting with those from the Social Security Administration, his fears were relieved.
“The good thing is that I am working and not hiding anything from anyone.”
Though Diego has retained his medical coverage that is not always the case.
SSA has guidelines which take into account the amount people earn, their other expenses, as well as other factors, before deciding whether they will continue to qualify for medical coverage or not, once they start working.
For “Terri”* who has a cerebral palsy and severe speech problems, the road to gainful employment has not been an easy one. Despite having a college degree and having completed internships at several companies while still in college, he has spent several years looking for a job without success.
“It is frustrating,” he said. “Because I know if they would give me a chance I would be successful.”
Terri does say that perception of him is influenced by his disability. He understands some employers’ reluctance to hire him because of the severity of his disability, but he thought that his degree and his experience would help to alleviate those doubts.
He pledges to continue searching and not give up.
Terri’s search for a job has been made difficult by the challenges, which are an outgrowth of his disability.
Terri’s CP makes it impossible for him to perform the essential activities of daily living, like bathing and getting dressed for work and living independently. As a result, Terri still lives with relatives who help him with these day-to-day activities. Unable to drive his own car, Terri would rely on public transportation to get to and from work.
“There are many layers to these problems,” he said. “It is not easy.”
Terri’s problems are not unique.
Many with disabilities feel that the challenges are too great to overcome, so they choose to rely on government assistance as their sole source of help, reinforcing the stereotype that people with disabilities must rely on others to take care of them.
“If I did work, I would have to earn twice as much, just to make ends meet,” he said.
* real name withheld upon request.
This is part one of a two-part series on employment for people with disabilities. Next month where to go for help.
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