30+ Years after the ADA, Disabled People Still Don’t Have Economic Justice

By Ashley Burnside 

July is recognized as Disability Pride Month to commemorate the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which passed in July 1990. The ADA provides protections for people with disabilities to access public spaces and services. Despite the ADA being signed into law over 30 years ago, our nation still has work to do before achieving true equity and economic justice for people with disabilities. 

People with disabilities experience double the rates of the poverty compared to the general population. Despite this, our nation doesn’t provide sufficient support for people with disabilities to allow them to achieve economic stability. Lawmakers must do more to support people with disabilities and to expand the anti-poverty programs available to people who have difficulty working.  

SSI and SSDI Don’t Provide Sufficient Support  

For people who have severe disabilities that prevent them from working, our nation has two programs designed to provide monthly cash benefits – Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI). Both programs have strict definitions of what is a qualifying disability to be eligible for benefits. SSI also has strict income and asset limits that target the program to people with very low incomes. 

Despite the importance of SSI and SSDI in providing recurring financial support for people with disabilities, both programs have cumbersome application processes that can take months, or even years, before approval. And the backlog of disability benefit applications has only gotten worse during the COVID-19 public health crisis—in part because the Social Security Administration is understaffed to process the increasing applications. For SSI, applicants often must get a lawyer to help them navigate the complicated legal process to receive benefits, which often requires court hearings and multiple rounds of applications. Ultimately, only 4 in 10 SSI applicants end up receiving benefits. And the acceptance rate for SSDI benefits is also low. 

Once applicants begin receiving SSI benefits, the monthly payment is small compared to rising costs of living. This year, the maximum monthly SSI benefit is only $841. And the program has outdated asset limits that prevent SSI recipients from having more than $2,000 ($3,000 if they are married) in total savings. If SSI recipients go above this asset limit, they will be kicked off the program. This prevents disabled people from building up substantial savings, which is essential for achieving economic security. SSI recipients can also lose their benefits if they get married to someone who is working. And SSDI recipients are required to arbitrarily wait five months before receiving benefits after being accepted and to wait two years before receiving Medicare coverage, leaving many disabled people without critical health care coverage. 

Other Public Benefit Programs Should Do More to Reach People with Disabilities  

Other public benefit programs, like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, commonly referred to as “food stamps”) and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), can provide financial support to people with disabilities. But both programs typically require recipients to meet work-reporting requirements to get benefits, unless recipients can prove they have a qualifying disability that prevents them from working or that they qualify for a different exemption. Qualifying for the disability exemption requires paperwork, multiple meetings, and medical appointments that can be challenging to access. The work requirements for these programs are also especially burdensome for parents and the caregivers of children who have disabilities. This leaves disabled people with less access to these anti-poverty programs. 

Lawmakers and Community Members Must Do More 

Congress should take a variety of actions to support people with disabilities. Federal legislators should make SSI more accommodating to recipients by implementing numerous reforms, such as eliminating the asset limit, increasing the earned income disregards, increasing the monthly benefit, tying the program to annual inflation adjustments, and removing the marriage penalty. Congress should also increase funding to the Social Security Administration to hire more staff for processing SSI and SSDI applications and speeding up the application timeline for applicants. In general, public benefit programs should be more accommodating for people with disabilities through strategies such as easing the disability exemption process for work-reporting requirements and streamlining the application and recertification processes. 

As community members, we should take Disability Pride Month as an opportunity to reflect on what people need to thrive, how we can make our workplaces and communities more accessible for people with disabilities, and what economic justice really means for people with disabilities. The Disability Economic Justice Collaborative website and accompanying reports are a good place to start. 

Many people with disabilities can work—if they receive the right accommodations and have coworkers who understand their strengths and needs. Ableism in the workplace, inaccessible office spaces, subminimum wages, and a lack of accommodations in jobs are what ultimately lead to people with disabilities being forced out of employment and in need of financial support. The ADA revolutionized how people with disabilities could access opportunities and public spaces, but our nation still has work to do. We need to build on the law’s 32-year legacy and continue the fight for disability economic justice. One critical step we should take for Disability Pride Month—and every month—is revolutionizing the anti-poverty programs available to people who are unable to work.