Working on Work: Making a Tangible Difference

by Sarah Rizzuto, M.A., M.F.A

Photo of Sarah Rizzuto

When I was sixteen, a counselor from the Bureau of Rehabilitation Services (BRS) asked what my dream job was.

“I want to teach college.” I replied.

Without hesitation, he explained BRS’s goal was to make me “employable”. Apparently, this meant the agency didn’t assist with funding for my personal care assistants beyond a Bachelors unless I could justify it.

But you asked what my DREAM job was, I thought to myself. Dreams are equal opportunity; everyone can have one.

Fortunately, my dream became reality. However, at thirty-two, this reality is far more restrictive than the young(er) adult me could’ve ever imagined. When I first began working about three years ago, I learned I’d be given nine trial work months. I could work for this period of time and earn well over the low income limit (also known as substantial gainful activity) and I’d remain eligible for my SSDI check. Since I’m an adjunct professor at a university I work only eight months out of the year. Although students and professors both look forward to Winter Break and summers off, this time spent off-campus is unpaid. This is why I must retain SSDI. The trial period is intended as a safety net; if my adjunct position didn’t work out I wouldn’t risk losing my check. In my situation, even with the minimal income I earn for teaching one class, I make too much.

Initially, excited to develop the first Disability Studies class to be offered via Women’s Studies in over ten years on my campus, I accepted the position without a second thought. This was in addition to teaching Creative Writing, a class I’d taught for the first time the semester before and am still teaching now. Thus, during my “trial” months, I excelled. Not only was I teaching one class, but two and this was my first career-type of employment! Before I started working, I’d heard about disabled folks declining promotions and now I understand why. If I’m only permitted to earn 1090 a month and my SSDI is 800 per month, that’s less than a 300 dollar difference. The energy and resources I expend just to ensure I don’t miss a day of work, as well as the time my PCAs spend assisting me with organizing paperwork/grading, is undoubtedly worth much more than a couple hundred dollars.

As I mentioned, teaching one class disqualifies me for SSDI; however I’m allowed to deduct certain work-related expenses. Although this helps, my out-of-pocket cost to stay under the limit isn’t offset at all. I work because I enjoy learning with and from my students. I know I’ve impacted them even if, some days, there are no tangible outcomes. While this is okay in terms of student achievement, it is extremely unacceptable for the careers and lives of disabled people.

We deserve tangible outcomes. CareerACCESS initiatives seek change at the legislative and administrative level. This communal advocacy is exactly what I’ve been searching for. Disabled people *working* on the issue of work. Although my degrees don’t define all of me, I wasn’t awarded three of them (including a Masters in English and one in Fine Arts as well as a graduate certificate in Women’s Studies) to not work as much as I choose. To say the majority of my students work multiple jobs while I’m faced with disincentives that make holding even one difficult is more than unfair, it violates a civil right. I look forward to the success of CareerACCESS and am grateful for this platform it has given me.

About Sarah: Sarah Rizzuto holds a Masters in English as well as a Master of Fine Arts in Poetry from Southern Connecticut State University. She currently teaches creative writing there. Last year, she also taught a Disability Studies course, through Women’s Studies, which she developed. She holds a graduate certificate in Women’s Studies from Southern too. Sarah is the President of the CT Poetry Society’s New Haven chapter. Most recently, she was published in Kaleidoscope magazine and is working on submitting more of her poetry.

Many people like Sarah face challenges because of current Social Security disability benefits policies.  You can help Sarah and other young adults in similar situations by signing our CareerACCESS petition to reform current federal policies to allow young adults with disabilities to pursue their career goals and achieve independence. You can also follow CareerACCESS on Facebook and Twitter and share our updates and posts.

DISCLAIMER: Readers are invited to add their views and experiences to the entries we post. The blogs we post are not edited; they are the candid and courageous views of real life experiences of young adults with disabilities. Sometimes the blogs we post may not describe current SSI or Social Security rules accurately, but it's important to share how people actually try to navigate these complex and complicated systems.

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