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Despite the Pandemic, Ticket to Work Remains a Vital Resource for Individuals With Disabilities

By Diane Winiarski

While COVID-19 has increased unemployment nationwide, individuals with disabilities have been disproportionately affected by pandemic-induced unemployment. The unemployment rate for people with disabilities is historically double the national rate, and at the height of the pandemic it surged from 7.3% to a high of 18.9%. Even as nationwide employment has improved, the unemployment rate for individuals with disabilities still stands at 11.1%.

The consistently high unemployment rate for these individuals is largely due to persistent myths and false stereotypes about people with disabilities in the workplace. That rate has slowly begun to decline, however, in large part because of the success of programs designed to help people with disabilities return to work.

One such program is Ticket to Work (TTW), a free, federally funded initiative that is available to help all individuals who receive Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) navigate the process of returning to work. For the past 20 years, TTW has provided thousands of individuals with the guidance and resources they need to safely explore employment options while combatting the fear of losing their SSDI benefits. It is overseen by the Social Security Administration (SSA).

The TTW program utilizes locally based Employment Networks (ENs), which provide services such as career counseling, job placement, and ongoing support once a disability recipient begins working. These tools could mean the difference between an individual remaining on a more limited income with SSDI or successfully returning to work. It’s estimated that up to 18% of individuals receiving disability benefits could be capable of working in some capacity following their recovery.

Recent data, however, indicate that only 30% of SSDI beneficiaries are aware of TTW, pointing to a dire need to increase awareness of this program and its continued operation, particularly in the midst of the economic challenges created by COVID-19.

Despite the difficulties of working remotely during the pandemic, ENs are still providing many vital services to help people pursue their career goals. EN specialists are helping individuals coordinate with employers to secure accommodations, such as approval to work from home and flexible schedules, which ensure the ability to work efficiently and safely during this time.

Positive Results of the Program
Many career counselors working for ENs are going above and beyond to help former workers pursue their career objectives during the pandemic. Thousands of Americans have used the TTW program to regain financial stability, pursue their career goals, and once again provide for themselves and their families. Social workers assisting eligible individuals who are interested in returning to work can help them learn more about TTW by visiting the SSA website. The SSA has curated a comprehensive network of employment professionals who can answer any questions individuals may have and guide them toward the many resources and opportunities available.

And for those who may have been concerned about the logistics of working from an office, TTW can help facilitate remote employment options, an accommodation that has become more common during the pandemic. Working with an EN will make the process of returning to work easier and less stressful, as all services are free. They can help protect an individual’s income and they help coordinate any communication with the SSA, which can be complicated and discouraging for an individual to undertake alone.

EN representatives are currently available to help individuals virtually and over the phone, assisting them in finding new opportunities and also helping them avoid employment scams, a problem that has become more prevalent during the pandemic.

At Allsup Employment Services, we’ve seen people across the country use TTW to return to work during the pandemic. One client from Coco, FL, was diagnosed with heart disease, kidney disease and type 2 diabetes. Following her diagnosis, she applied for SSDI and, after an initial period of recovery, used the TTW program to revisit her passion for social work. She found a job as a program manager at the Children’s Home Society, where she is currently working remotely, from the safety of her home.

For people with disabilities, returning to work under normal circumstances can be a challenge, and the pandemic has undoubtedly created new obstacles. Despite the difficulties posed by COVID-19, the TTW program remains one of the best resources for individuals with disabilities interested in returning to the workforce, but only if they are aware of its value.

Increasing awareness of the TTW program is essential to ensuring all those who are eligible have the guidance they need to return to work. By relying on the knowledge and expertise of EN representatives, individuals with disabilities can start down the path toward a new career and new possibilities today.

— Diane Winiarski, MEd, is director of Allsup Employment Services, a national Social Security Administration–authorized employment network. She oversees experts providing specialized help to people with disabilities who are returning to work through the Social Security Administration’s Ticket to Work program.