Striving to help Maryland's disabled join the work force

ON THE JOB

October 24, 2007|By HANAH CHO

Unemployment in Maryland is 3.9 percent, which is better than the nation's rate of 4.7 percent. But the unemployment picture for disabled residents in the state is dismal: 60 percent.

Nearly 18 percent, or 850,000 residents, of the state's population are classified as disabled, according to the 2000 U.S. Census.

The Maryland Department of Disabilities, which became a Cabinet-level agency in 2004, works to coordinate the policies of public and private agencies serving disabled residents, identifies and recommends ways to improve services and provides information and referrals.

Employment is a particular focus for Secretary Catherine A. Raggio, who spent more than 30 years as a disability advocate before she started in her post in February.

"The most important thing I want to communicate to people with disabilities and their families is that it's possible today for more people with disabilities than ever to be employed and they need to believe that and set high goals for themselves," said Raggio, who was stricken with polio as a child and uses a wheelchair.

In celebration of National Disability Employment Awareness Month, The Sun recently spoke with Raggio about her focus on employment issues. She talked about challenges that still exist for disabled residents seeking employment and what steps the state is taking to help increase work force participation.

Why is unemployment so high?

You have to look at it from a historical context. And historically, people with disabilities were perceived as dependent and incompetent sometimes. ... Then you have a certain set of disincentives to work.

So it plays out like this. You have a disability and you can't work at your present job anymore and maybe that's temporary. You apply for Social Security benefits and you have to go through a process of qualifying. And that's usually time-consuming. And sometimes people are turned down the first time you apply and sometimes people have to hire attorneys. Once you get those benefits, you don't want to give them up. ... After you've had to go through the process to qualify for Social Security benefits, the idea of trying to go back to work is very risky.

What is Maryland doing to make entry into the labor market easier for disabled residents?

In 1999, the Ticket to Work and Work Incentives Improvement Act was passed by Congress and signed into law by former President Clinton. A key provision was expedited reinstatement. You could go back to work and try it, and if it doesn't work out, you could go through an expedited process and not have to go back to the other process that was so time-consuming to get back your Social Security benefits.

States also have the ability to create a Medicaid buy-in program. [The program allows residents with disabilities who work and meet other requirements to receive Medicaid coverage for $75 every six months.]

Surveys have been done with people with disabilities on why they don't work. It's fear of loss of benefits. It's always health benefits that are important to them. It stands to reason because a lot of people with disabilities have high medication costs. ...

Maryland has only rolled out its Medicaid buy-in within the last year. The enrollment is very low. It's still under 200 people. We need to step up the marketing and let people know that it exists and what it means for them individually.

The Governor's Interagency Transition Council for Youth With Disabilities, which you co-chair, will oversee a recent $2.9 million, five-year grant that will provide career services, paid job experiences and leadership activities for students with disabilities. What role will this grant play in helping young people with disabilities succeed?

We need to begin to look at them well before they leave the school system. ... They are ready for the next step - whether it's higher education, whether it's going directly to the world of work or into a rehabilitation program - we want to be sure the outcomes are positive for our students. So often in the past, they haven't been. ... We believe that we want to catch them at that point in their lives. It's their ideal time to make sure they could reach their goals.

Your department oversees one program called the Maryland Technology Assistance Program. Could you talk about that?

There have been wondrous changes in assistive technology over the years. It really is the great equalizer. ...

Our TAP program is charged with spreading the word about assistive technology. But they also have set up a buying co-op to get better prices on assistive technology because it could be pretty pricey.

They've also set up an assistive technology loan program. These are guaranteed loans by the state in case a person defaults. People could get a loan as small as $500 or as high as $30,000.

If you're a person who needs a van with a ramp or lift on it, that adaptation to the van could be very expensive and you may want to finance that. Or you may want to buy a Braille printer if you want to set up a home business or other assistive technology. People should think of assistive technology as both high-tech and low-tech.

Send your stories, tips and questions to working@baltsun.com. Please include your first name and your city. On the Job is published Monday at www.baltimoresun.com.

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