Promises to Keep

Music.

Linda Pelic Stradtman: "The woods are lovely, dark and deep. But I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep. And miles to go before I sleep."

These are the words of the great poet Robert Frost, and they still ring true for thousands of people with disabilities who have crossed the bridge to independent living with the help of Social Security's S.S.I. Work Incentives.

Hi, I'm Linda Pelic Stradtman and welcome to "Promises to Keep." People with disabilities often have miles to go before they can enter or reenter the workforce. That's why they rely heavily on the promise that Social Security will be there for them. The S.S.I. Work Incentives can act as a safety net by providing health care, cash benefits, and the deduction of some work expenses while a person works.

We're at Baltimore's historic Bell's Point today to meet a unique individual. This is Kendall Smith. Kendall is a micro-computer specialist with JHPIEGO Incorporated, an international reproductive health care organization. Kendall was born with cerebral palsy but he never let this challenge stand in the way of his vision to be self-supporting.

Eight years ago, Kendall was able to get this job with the help of a Work Incentive that enabled him to keep his health coverage and receive his cash benefits. That was eight years ago. Now, Kendall is working towards a college degree, pays his own health care insurance, and has received advanced training to become JHPIEGO's computer network administrator. I caught up with him in his office.

Kendall, it's been about eight years since you received your last S.S.I. check. Can you tell us how much your life has changed because of the S.S.I. Work Incentives?

Kendall Smith: My life has changed tremendously over the past eight years. I've been able to work at a job that I enjoy immensely, and I was given the opportunity through the Work Incentive program to succeed, and I'm currently pursuing my college education.

Stradtman: To be successful in the workforce, it's extremely important that a person is enthusiastic about his or her job. The S.S.I. Work Incentives help people with disabilities to build self-confidence and maintain a positive mental focus. Kendall's co-workers agree.

Donna Eddy: I think Kendall's so upbeat at work because he really enjoys what he does.

Sandra de Castro Buffington: I think Kendall's upbeat because it's his way of embracing life. Kendall cares about people, and his upbeat style is the way he lets people know that.

Marla Domino: He's willing to help out anybody with anything, no matter how small the problem is, how big it is. He's very user friendly, I would say.

Stradtman: How did the Work Incentives help you specifically?

Kendall: They helped me specifically because a lot of times people with physical limitations, they need medical coverage, and that was something that was very important, being that once I passed my probationary period, I knew that my employer would provide medical coverage for me.

Dr. Noel McIntosh: Oh, great, Kendall. That's good. We'll look it over and then if there's any comments on it...

Stradtman: And Kendall's not the only one who likes the Work Incentives program. This is Kendall's employer, Dr. Noel McIntosh, with his thoughts about Kendall's success.

McIntosh: Kendall's interest and his creative energies are really directed toward what can he do that's going to help the organization. Along the way, I think it always helps him, but it's nice to work with somebody who's thinking about what's best for the organization first, not just what's best for them.

Stradtman: What do you believe is the best thing about the Work Incentives?

Kendall: I believe that the best thing about Work Incentives, it gives people with physical limitations a chance to succeed, and success is something that is important to everyone. And then you yourself can provide yourself with a steady source of income, and that way you can be self-sustaining.

Stradtman: In reality, Work Incentives help break down barriers for the disabled, and they also enable people with disabilities to showcase their creativity, intellect and people skills in the workplace, thereby ending stereotypes.

Eddy: He brings a lot of creativity in the terms of, he presents a viewpoint that I would never have thought of. In the beginning, what happened was I thought of Kendall in terms of things that he wouldn't be able to do; for instance, wouldn't be able to do cabling, wouldn't be able to move computers, wouldn't be able to do a lot of things that are normally a part of an I.S. person's job and function.

What I realized was, it was my perspective that was presenting the obstacle, and that this person was very capable of performing the function, and so he ended up raising my consciousness and raising my – changing my perspective.

McIntosh: And I don't think anyone even looked at or thought about that he might have some difficulty in moving around to do this. In fact, I think at JHPIEGO, no one sees Kendall as having a disability. Kendall sees – and we see Kendall as a person who can do a job.

Norma Chavez: I think that Kendall is really a very positive person. I think that makes a whole lot of difference in his way in developing here in JHPIEGO, and I think besides that, he's professionally some – he's great.

Nancy Elliott: Kendall's the first person I call upon, and he's always available, and he's knowledgeable about everything that he does.

Stradtman: More than anything else, Work Incentives provide people with the opportunity to succeed.

Buffington: Kendall was given the same opportunity as everyone else. He's just used it better. In Portugese, we call that Jaitu (phonetic); Kendall has Jaitu. He can get it done.

Ali Crawford: I think Kendall is an excellent example of what a person can accomplish given the opportunity, but more importantly, Kendall took the opportunity that was presented to him and made the most of it.

McIntosh: I think that Kendall's rise in the organization sort of mirrors what's happened to JHPIEGO, and his destiny and our destiny are sort of tied together.

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Stradtman: When you see Kendall's story, you realize that this is what S.S.I. Work Incentives are all about. Helping people to help themselves. In our next segment, you'll see a unique perspective on the Work Incentive programs from a disability advocate.

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Stradtman: This is Donna Winner. She has been a registered occupational therapist for the past 23 years, and she has been the Director of Occupational Therapy at the Maryland Rehabilitation Center for the past eight years. Donna and her staff have been highly effective in providing people with disabilities occupational therapy so that they can use the Work Incentives program to enter or reenter the workforce. Donna Winner explains.

Donna Winner: My decision to enter the workforce really just evolved as part of my growing up process. At the age of six, I developed polio and right away, you know, after my recuperation period, I entered regular school. I wasn't perceived as a disabled person but perhaps a person with special needs.

I completed my schooling. In high school, I did find out about occupational therapy, and since I knew that I wanted to enter a helping profession, it just seemed the natural thing to do, to go to college and then to go to work.

So here I am, you know, as a productive member of society, and it certainly makes me feel good.

Stradtman: Because Work Incentives are all about helping people with disabilities to see the possibilities, it is often the advocate who can make the critical difference, as Donna's co-workers explain.

Ann Reed: Donna enjoys her job a lot because she's really interested in people. She's very into their – their problems, she wants to help them. She has a lot of insight into disabilities because she is disabled herself.

Joan Patinella: I think Donna enjoys her job so much because she finds it very satisfying and very fulfilling. As a therapist, when you work with a client, they come to us often dependent in a certain skill, and we may provide them with a piece of assistive, adaptive equipment or train them in a certain technique, and when they leave us, they're independent in that technique. It could be feeding or dressing. And the person themselves have a tremendous sense of accomplishment, and as a therapist, you do, too.

Winner: I'm driven about my work because work is a part of my own personal value system. I value my role as worker, and I value my profession and my ability to help individuals with their own disabilities to return to their role as worker.

We all, in life, have different life roles, be it homemaker, mother, father, bread-winner, and part of the value system is the importance of being a worker and contributing to society.

Stradtman: Drive, it's paramount to the success of every employee. That's why Work Incentives are called Work Incentives because they bring out the drive to succeed in people with disabilities as well as their advocates. I found out why Donna is so driven when I spoke with her employer, Jim Jeffers.

Jim Jeffers: Donna is so driven in making programs like Work Incentives successful for her clients because she understands the importance of self-respect, self-reliance, and the ability to acquire and maintain a job in an individual's life.

Fred Neil: She's a partner and she will go to any extreme to be right, to be accurate, and to be successful for the client.

Dr. Charles Jenkins: S.S.I. Work Incentives, such as the plan for achieving self-support Medicaid continuation and impairment-related work expenses, are extremely effective in helping individuals with disabilities enter or reenter the workforce because they are flexible. By that I mean, these Work Incentives can be tailored to fit specific needs so that a person can succeed.

But more importantly, these programs are part of our continuing effort to assist the people that we serve living more independent and rewarding lifestyle.

Jeffers: Based upon my experience with the Social Security Administration and the disability community, the Work Incentives are so important because they allow an individual to experiment with the work activity and a job while maintaining the security of an income maintenance benefit. That's what makes Work Incentives so important.

Winner: Work Incentives absolutely make it easier for people to rejoin the workforce or enter the workforce for the first time, especially for the severely disabled folks that I deal with because many of them have long-term, if not life-term needs that will have to be met. And by having the Work Incentives, they are able to maintain their role as worker, enter the workforce, and still be able to take care of those very basic needs.

Stradtman: It's because of dedicated advocates like Donna that the S.S.I. Work Incentives have helped thousands of people with disabilities to live more independent lives.

One last thing. Social Security recommends that you talk to a Social Security representative before you start working so that you can use the Work Incentive that best suits your needs. If you've already started working, Social Security asks that you keep all of your pay stubs and contact the local Social Security office as soon as possible.

To find out more about S.S.I. Work Incentives for people with disabilities, contact your local Social Security office or call 1-800-772-1213 between the hours of 7:00 a.m. and 7:00 p.m. any business day. When you call, ask for the free brochure, "Working While Disabled."

Disability advocates can ask for a free copy of the "Red Book" on disabilities just by calling the toll-free number, 1-800-772-1213.

Both Kendall Smith and Donna Winner had miles to go before they reached their destination. In each of their own ways, they symbolize what Work Incentives are all about. Keeping a promise to help others while helping oneself. I'm Linda Pelic Stradtman.

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