“Only Employed, Responsible People Wanted”- Working Around SSI Toward A Career

By Justin Harford

A lot could be said about the hours of sleep that I lost growing up as a youth with blindness whose greatest fear was failure, and relegation to dependence and poverty on SSI.

My name is Justin Harford, and I am the Disability Community Advocate at FREED Center for Independent Living in Grass Valley, California. Much of my work involves policy and community organizing for positive systemic change at the local grassroots level for people with disabilities like myself. I am proud to be gainfully employed for the first time in my life, and grateful to be in a job that I believe in and enjoy. I hope to work my way up, and to strive for a career which constantly challenges me and expands my outlook on the world.

I spent five years as a student at the University of California Berkeley between 2007 and 2012, graduating with my Bachelor of Arts degree in Latin American History, with a minor in Spanish Literature. I directed a class on LaTeX for three years, a computer markup system for mathematicians and scientists to publish documents with arithmetical notation. I intensively studied Spanish, as well as Portuguese. I put together a 50 page senior thesis, using over 500 pages of primary source Spanish language materials, on the history of the blind in Chilean society 1920-1950. During these years, SSI was both a source of support, and anxiety.

My student experience was marked with money problems, accentuated by the $2000 asset limit of SSI. I regularly spent more than half of my benefits on rent. Scholarship money could have helped, but I could not control it directly, and use it for what I needed, because I was not allowed to have more than $2000 in assets.

Shared housing would’ve also been useful, but I feared people judging me for being a welfare case, or a deadbeat. Craigslist housing ads stating things like “only employed, responsible people wanted” did much to reinforce this sentiment. I also found that I routinely had to assume personal responsibility for hundreds of dollars in extra expenses as a student with a disability, such as textbooks, tuition and other class related materials. Sometimes the Department of Rehabilitation would assist me, but I still had to have the money saved to make the initial purchases.

When I began the job hunt, things did not get easier. Traveling to interviews could be costly, such as $500 for an airline ticket to interview at the Department of Justice in Washington, DC. Chasing after job offers was also impossible with the $2000 asset limit, because of the cost of moving. When I took a job opportunity in Tracy California, I had to put down a deposit on an apartment for $1600. After I got repetitive stress injuries in my wrists, I needed to figure out a new way of working on the computer without typing, which cost me almost $1000 to purchase different kinds of ergonomic keyboards and software before finding a solution.

Social Security could have done much to complement the work of vocational rehabilitation, but it didn’t. I was never aware of options for people like me to seek a career. No one ever asked me if I was a Ticket holder, and I didn’t even know that I was until last January. No one ever told me that I could be exempt from the $2000 asset limit, as someone working hard to be self-supporting. They also denied the fact that I could receive benefits while living abroad for more than 30 days if it was part of a plan to become financially independent, even after I did the research and found the citation on a SSA website.

That is why I believe in the CareerACCESS Initiative, because it would’ve really helped me as a blind person trying to become self-supporting through education and meaningful employment. If I had experienced Social Security during this time as a partner in my progress toward termination from the disability rolls, rather than as an opponent, I would have had more time to focus my talents on what mattered to me.

Support Justin and other youth with disabilities in becoming self-supportive and achieving their career goals by signing the CareerACCESS petition, following our social media sites (Facebook and Twitter), and sharing Justin’s story! Contact us at ourcareeraccess@gmail.com if you are interested in sharing your experience or opinion on this issue.