On March 29, 2003, I experienced an incomplete spinal-cord injury during a hit-and-run bicycle accident, resulting in a diagnosis of quadriplegia. I was a teenager at the time. In the years since, I’ve thrived academically, personally and professionally. Today, I’m pleased to use my experiences to help others do so as well, especially related to financial planning — something top of mind each April, which is Financial Literacy Month.
A key resource I often share is the U.S. Department of Labor’s Secure Your Financial Future: A Financial Toolkit for People with Disabilities. Some basics about finances and savings are universal. But for people with disabilities, additional factors come into play, such as whether they’ve had their disability from birth or acquired it later in life; their diagnosis; access to health care; and their previous work experiences.
Reflecting various life aspects, the Financial Toolkit is not one-size-fits-all. It is a well-organized guide to the five parts of the “work-life cycle”: preparing for a job, starting a job, maintaining a job, changing or losing a job and retiring from a job.
To start with the first, I began preparing for work before I acquired my disability. My father and mother are both career driven, and my brother and I emulated their work ethic. My first work experience was as a volunteer and associate vendor for the Society for African American Cultural Awareness street festival in Jackson, Tenn., an annual festival promoting traditional and contemporary African American heritage. I gained experience in inventory control, money and time management. I also developed an understanding of what work is like. The toolkit has more information about how volunteer work can help develop skills.
My accident overlapped with my first job as a cashier and customer-service representative at a pizza shop. After my injury, I needed to adjust to returning to high school and figure out how to continue working. I had to consider things I had never thought of previously, such as allowing more time to travel to and from work, asking for a uniform accommodation and increasing communication with managers about personal needs and breaks.
In addition, I needed to understand how working might affect disability benefits. The process of working while receiving Supplemental Security Income confused my mother and me, and this created setbacks on my employment journey. For example, I did not have a clear understanding of the trial work period, a work incentive through SSI. If the toolkit had existed then, it could have prevented countless letters and trips to the local Social Security office.
My employment journey included higher education, and navigating college required the same skills and techniques I developed while adapting to work as a person with a disability. During college and my Master of Business Administration program, I self-advocated by alerting my professors to the reasonable accommodations I would need to succeed.
Reading about my journey, you might assume I ran carefree through the daffodils of the work world, but I tiptoed carefully through the tulips. Even with my experience and education, my path has been far from smooth. For instance, I did not have a frame of reference or tools to search for a professional job. I grappled with the question of when and how to acknowledge my disability during the resume and job-interview process.
While I sometimes felt alone, the truth is that many job-seekers with disabilities seek answers to the same questions. The toolkit is a figurative Swiss army knife — a multifaceted tool that helps individuals with disabilities carve a career and financial independence roadmap. In fact, although I now have 18 years of professional experience, it is still a valuable resource for me; I am using the savings tools to realize my goal of homeownership.
I am proud to have built a life that brings both my parents and me pride, especially given that statistics show that Black people with disabilities experience the highest poverty rate. That’s another reason why I’m committed, this month and every month, to helping others with disabilities achieve their dreams.
Edward Mitchell is an independent living specialist and outreach coordinator who works in Jackson, Tenn. He also serves as an Achieving a Better Life Experience ambassador for the National Disability Institute, helping educate people with disabilities about ABLE Accounts and other strategies to assist people with disabilities to plan and save for their future.