Encouraging People with Disabilities to Work

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Having a physical or mental disability can make it impossible to work. But for people with disabilities who are able, it’s crucial they get the support they need so they can work and feel productive, self-sufficient, and part of a larger community.

So who are they? A new study identifies a small but promising group who are initially awarded monthly cash assistance from the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program and eventually qualify for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI).

The researchers call them SSI-first beneficiaries because the SSI payments come first and then the workers migrate over to SSDI and sometimes quit their jobs.

If identified early, these individuals could be encouraged to remain in the labor force after their SSDI benefits start or even leave the federal benefit rolls.

The researchers found that people who were receiving SSI and eventually entered SSDI had more success working – and more promise for staying in the labor force – when compared with one other group: SSI awardees who did not enter SSDI.

For example, three out of four SSI-first recipients, who later were awarded SSDI, had worked in the five years after their SSI payments started. This compares with just one in five people receiving SSI who did not enter SSDI later.

In another indication of their employment potential, a third of SSI-first recipients had their SSDI benefits suspended because their earnings were relatively high. It was rare for people receiving only SSI to jeopardize their benefits this way.

To be eligible for both the SSI and SSDI programs, the federal government caps the earnings of workers with disabilities at $1,350 per month.

People who get SSI may wind up on SSDI for a variety of reasons. In some cases it’s strategic: they may have been working only in order to build up enough work credits to qualify for the benefits. But they could also be workers who, with support, might have remained in the labor force or could have been prevented from leaving work when they applied for disability.

Indeed, in addition to a higher employment rate, SSI-first recipients who later enter SSDI often fit the profile of someone who wants to work. They’re more likely to be in their early 20s and to have participated in a vocational rehabilitation program, the researchers found.

The findings indicate they might be good candidates for outreach. For example, Social Security’s Work Incentives Planning and Assistance program provides counseling to explain the interaction between disability benefits and earning money so people can test out a job during a trial period without losing any benefits.

Programs like these, the researchers said, could improve beneficiaries’ “well-being and reduce their reliance on government benefits.”

To read this study, authored by Jessica Laird, Yonatan Ben-Shalom and Priyanka Anand, see “Employer Patterns of SSI-first Awardees Who Enter SSDI after Achieving Disability Status.”

The research reported herein was derived in whole or in part from research activities performed pursuant to a grant from the U.S. Social Security Administration (SSA) funded as part of the Retirement and Disability Research Consortium.  The opinions and conclusions expressed are solely those of the authors and do not represent the opinions or policy of SSA, any agency of the federal government, or Boston College.  Neither the United States Government nor any agency thereof, nor any of their employees, make any warranty, express or implied, or assumes any legal liability or responsibility for the accuracy, completeness, or usefulness of the contents of this report.  Reference herein to any specific commercial product, process or service by trade name, trademark, manufacturer, or otherwise does not necessarily constitute or imply endorsement, recommendation or favoring by the United States Government or any agency thereof. 


Allowing them to test a job without losing benefits is a great step. Also, working isn’t just for money. A workplace can offer a great chance of social interaction and friendship. That is a huge advantage and improves well-being and mental health.

Steve Chanecka

A major issue not addressed as far as I know…the rapid climb in minimum wage $15 in CA that forces SSDI recipients (my daughter) to work fewer hours than she’d like. At the same time, the cost of living in CA is way out of sync with $1,350 per mo. top compensation. Due to her disability (intellectual), she’ll never earn more than minimum wage. The $1,350 is unrealistic for California and other high-cost states. HELP!!!

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