If Michael Richard Warner works full-time, he could lose the wheelchair, independent living facility and assistive technology that are essential to his quality of life. Warner said the Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid systems would expect his work insurance to provide benefits, which wouldn’t cover the help Warner, diagnosed with spastic cerebral palsy at age three, needs to get dressed, prepare meals and move around.
The 34-year-old holds an associate degree, has spoken at the state Capitol about disabilities and wants full-time work. But besides some speaking engagements he’s only had one job — a personal care planning facilitator for individuals with disabilities, which lasted half a year. Warner said he can’t work more than four hours per week and keep his benefits.
“I’m tired of putting effort into a system that … seems more [conducive] to me receiving benefits for the rest of my life, not working, and shutting up, than to me working,” he said.
Warner is dealing with a complicated benefit system that’s difficult to navigate, according to Ian Froemming, president of Nebraska’s Association of People Supporting Employment First chapter. Froemming said that, in Nebraska, Medicaid and Social Security are governed by separate bodies so have different requirements for what’s considered a disability.
“There’s a ton of protections for people with disabilities in [Nebraska] that aren’t communicated well across systems,” said Froemming, who helps young adults with disabilities understand the benefit system as an assistant director of navigation services for Madonna School & Community-Based Services. “[But you must] understand the system better than the system understands itself.”
Froemming said people with disabilities can work part-time (though not necessarily full-time) and keep benefits — once they and/or their advocates figure out the system. He recommends people like Warner contact Easterseals Nebraska, which serves individuals with disabilities, for free benefits planning and counseling. Everyone’s benefit and employment situation is unique, Froemming said, and you shouldn’t assume a peer’s experience will mirror your own.
According to Warner, barriers to work for people with disabilities don’t end with benefit problems. He recalls employers and coworkers who insist they value team members with disabilities, yet refuse to take them seriously and accommodate them.
“[People] claim individuals with disabilities are productive members of society but [don’t] give [them] access to be fully productive,” Warner said.
Then there’s subminimum wage, which allows some companies to pay people with disabilities less than minimum wage if they’re declared less productive than coworkers without disabilities. Froemming said he has seen someone get paid 87 cents for two weeks of work.
“Why aren’t we holding people to a higher self-worth standard?” he asked.
But, Froemming said, other employers pay adequate wages. He points employment-seeking adults with disabilities to section 1619(b) of the Social Security Act, which lets states set individual thresholds for how much people with disabilities can make and still retain their Medicaid benefits. Nebraska’s threshold is $40,010 — fairly high compared to other states.
Froemming has watched people with disabilities thrive in positions ranging from childcare assistant to maintenance worker.
“[At Madonna School & Community-Based Services,] we [have] a vested interest in getting to know our clients and learn what they want to do,” Froemming said. “I got to choose my career, and I’m sure you got to choose your career, and [people with disabilities] deserve the same dignity.”
Warner, for his part, is creating a company that trains people with disabilities in motivational speaking, self-advocacy and securing well-paid employment — including at the company itself. He knows that if the company makes enough money, he may lose benefits. But if he doesn’t go for it, Warner said, he’ll always wonder what could have been.
“I want to train individuals with disabilities to … ask for [the salary they’re] worth and be their own advocates,” Warner said. “[Let’s] spread that message across the globe.”
Special thanks to Bradley A. Meurrens, MPA, the public policy director at Disability Rights Nebraska, for providing extensive background information on subminimum wage and Medicaid coverage for individuals with disabilities.
From Nov. 2020 – Aug. 2022, Leah reported on social justice, including employment equity, economic justice, educational inequality, and the experiences and history of Nebraska’s LGBTQ+ community. Although she’s now pursuing a PhD in Communication, Information and Media at Rutgers University, Leah remains a diehard Reader fan and wholeheartedly supports all things Reader. You can connect with her via Twitter (@cates_leah).