The Path to Employment: The Days Before PASS and Ticket to Work

Posted by Reeve Staff in Life After Paralysis on June 04, 2020 # Lifestyle, Employment

As someone who has been living with a spinal cord injury for over 29 years, my employment experiences pre-date the creation of various employment programs for the disabled such as PASS and Ticket to Work. While these tools can be invaluable, my path can still be explored as a way to gain employment.Bernadette Mauro headshot

Immediately after my work-related spinal cord injury in 1990, I went on disability. I was not cleared to go back to work but could go to school. I enrolled in a community college for an adaptive PE class and someone told me about classes for exploring what type of employment I was suited to. That started me on the path to graduate school. In graduate school, I applied for and received a scholarship from a vocational rehabilitation counselors’ professional association to help with school costs. I was in a master’s program for a degree in vocational rehabilitation. By the time I got into the last semester of education, my former employer was mandated to pay for all of my education (all of my tuition, fees, books and even mileage to and from school) because I had already shown I could complete my educational plan. By exploring education and employment options on my own, I was able to move ahead faster than the worker’s comp system moved. I was able to move directly from finishing my degree to job search.

Soon after graduating I started my family and moved out of state. I took a two-year employment break to tend to my son’s illness while my husband supported us. I had gone on a few interviews as a visibly pregnant wheelchair user—predictably they were very short and no job offers were forthcoming.

Unfortunately, I did not qualify for Social Security as I was a teacher paying into the state teachers’ retirement fund instead of Social Security. Neither the PASS program nor the Ticket to Work program existed then which made everything more challenging. I returned to employment in a low paying job with no health insurance but because it was in my chosen field (vocational rehab), it turned out to be invaluable in teaching me the skills I would need and use for the rest of my career. The experience led to better jobs as it provided opportunities for networking with leaders in the disability field who would later hire me for other positions.

Volunteer work and internships were also invaluable in learning and networking. I volunteered as a peer mentor for parents with children in the NICU. A second volunteer stint involved supporting parents whose kids had IEPs in the local school system. Volunteer tutoring of children also provided contacts and references in the employment world.

By working in the disability field, I didn’t have to worry about accessibility issues such as steps, buildings, bathrooms and my job accommodation requests were met and quickly implemented. I did a stint as a caregiver in a group home for delinquent teens where all access was already in place since some of them were living with disabilities.

I had to makes some choices –whether to play it safe or take a risk. I found that by knowing myself well and what kind of risk I was willing to take moved me into employment faster. Some of the questions I asked myself were: Can I work in a low paying job for a while to learn more skills that will help me get ahead later? Not everyone can physically or financially afford to do that. Did I have the confidence to be able to impress in a job interview and convey that I could do the job? Can I tie together all my skills acquired through past jobs and identify how they fit into the job I’m applying for? Years ago, I had to allay the fears of one prospective employer who was afraid that I could not do the job as an out-of-state remote employee. This was before telecommuting was common and I had to prove myself.

Here are my top tips to those who want to and can work after a spinal cord injury:

  • Get all the education you can as you may need it to advance later
  • Be willing to work your way up from a lower ranking or lower paying job. Every job teaches you new skills—take advantage of that.
  • Volunteer and take internships if possible, they also increase your skills and provide references
  • Network to increase your chances of being hired

In summary, jumping into the employment arena may be difficult but having a job provides not only money but psychological benefits in self-esteem. Time spent focused on a job is time you don’t focus on pain or social isolation. Give it a try.

The Reeve Foundation provides free access to a pre-employment benefits analyst who can help you weigh if you may want to leave disability benefits to take a job. Everyone’s situation is different and you can talk it through with the analyst to see what is best for you. Call an Information Specialist at the number below if you are interested.

By Bernadette Mauro, Director, Information Services and Resources, Paralysis Resource Center, Christopher & Dana Reeve. To reach an Information Specialist at the Reeve Foundation, please call 800-539-7309 or contact www.ChristopherReeve.org/Ask.