Facing Barriers to Work? Disability Rights Tennessee Can Help Social Security Recipients Find Solutions

By Nathan Walsh

About the Author

Nathan Walsh is a staff attorney at Disability Rights Tennessee.  His work focuses primarily on assisting clients of Vocational Rehabilitation and beneficiaries of Social Security with barriers to work.  He graduated from Vanderbilt Law School in 2016 and launched his public interest career as the inaugural recipient of the George Barrett Social Justice Fellowship.

Our hope is that this weekly blog will offer information you want to know, so if you have a question you want answered about employment for people with disabilities or other mysteries of the world of work, please email me at janet.shouse@vumc.org.

In October, Disability Rights Tennessee proudly celebrated National Disability Employment Awareness Month by hosting our sixth annual Disability Employment Awareness Luncheon at Music City Center in Nashville. This event brings together stakeholders from business, nonprofits, and government to increase awareness about the many benefits of employing people with disabilities and listen to how competitive integrated employment has impacted real Tennesseans with disabilities.

But, as you know, employing more folks with disabilities and closing the stubborn employment gap that exists between the employment rate of individuals with disabilities and the employment rate of individuals without disabilities isn’t an issue that can be solved by focusing on it once a year.

Disability Rights Tennessee works on this issue year-round, and one way we work on this issue is through our Protection & Advocacy for Beneficiaries of Social Security program. The PABSS program is a nationwide program that was created by the federal government’s Ticket to Work and Work Incentives Improvement Act of 1999.

Disability Rights Tennessee is the Protection & Advocacy agency for Tennessee. If you aren’t familiar with P&As, Protection and Advocacy Systems work at the state level to protect individuals with disabilities by empowering them and advocating on their behalf. There are 57 P&As in the United States and its territories, and each is independent of service-providing agencies in their states. P&As are dedicated to the ongoing fight for the personal and civil rights of individuals with disabilities.

Disability Rights Tennessee’s Protection & Advocacy for Beneficiaries of Social Security program allows us to serve beneficiaries of Social Security with disabilities between the ages of 14 and 64 who face barriers to work.  It doesn’t matter if you receive Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) or Supplemental Security Income (SSI), as long as you receive it due to your disability.

During our 2019 fiscal year, which ended in September, our PABSS program was able to serve clients on issues including:

  • Employment discrimination that prevented equal opportunities in employment
  • Reasonable accommodations in the workplace
  • Wage discrimination
  • Assistance with obtaining services from Vocational Rehabilitation
  • Postsecondary accommodations
  • Work incentives (For additional information, see https://yourtickettowork.ssa.gov/resources/work-incentives.html )
  • Advocacy assistance if employment goals in Individual Support Plans aren’t being supported by providers
  • Legal supports needed for independence (see an example below)
  • Clarifying the legal duties of temporary employment agencies
  • Expungement of criminal records preventing employment
  • And explaining individuals’ legal rights.

If you are an eligible individual and think you are dealing with a barrier to work that we could help you with, we would love to hear from you.  You can contact our Intake Unit at 1-800-342-1660 or gethelp@disabilityrightstn.org.  Our intake team needs to respond to inquiries in the order in which they are received, so they may not be able to answer your call immediately.

However, when they do respond to your inquiry, they will gather information about your issue.  If your issue seems like something that we can assist with, they will provide your information to a Disability Rights Tennessee attorney who will determine if and how DRT can assist.  Sometimes, the attorney will need more information from you and will instruct the Intake Unit to get back in touch with you to gather additional information about your issue.

There is no official definition of what constitutes a barrier to work for an individual with a disability, so I would like to leave you with a couple examples of how we were able to help folks in our last fiscal year, so you can have a picture of barriers to work and how we can help.

In one case, we were able to help a talented hair stylist with deafness receive a job opportunity after an employer initially did not want to hire her due to her deafness.  We helped explain how she could perform her job functions with her disability and deserved an equal opportunity. In another case, we helped an individual with a physical disability who wanted to become a lawyer explore options for legally signing documents without needing to have a conservator appointed to sign documents for him.  As a final example, we were able to provide a client with legal education and self-advocacy skills so that she was able to successfully ask for and receive a job accommodation that she needed in the workplace because of her disability.

Of course, not every individual we try to help results in a success story, but we are very proud of the work that we do every year to remove barriers to work so that individuals with disabilities can obtain and maintain competitive integrated employment.  We hope that you don’t encounter a barrier to work on your path to continued employment, but if you do, we hope we can help!

If you would like information about a different state’s PABSS program, please contact the Protection & Advocacy agency of that state.

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I appreciate Nathan’s taking time to explain this program, as I think many individuals receiving SSI could use this assistance. If you have questions, you can contact Disability Rights Tennessee at the contact information above, or you can email me at janet.shouse@vumc.org. Thanks for reading!