The Talent Drain: Disincentives in The Federal Disability Program

On Jan. 18, 1979, Mike Zelley was heading home after a business meeting to celebrate his wedding anniversary with his wife. He was driving his car in the early dark, and turned onto a highway ramp. His car hit a patch of black ice and slid toward the guard rail. It being Detroit in the dead of winter, the plow trucks had pushed the snow out of the road and up against the rails, essentially forming a ski ramp. Zelley’s car flew up the snow ramp, 40 feet into the air, and down over the embankment onto its front end.

Zelley’s neck was broken. He was paralyzed.Mike Zelley 1080

Despite life-saving measures, he was to live the rest of his life as a paraplegic. He thought his life was over.

“Then something miraculous happened, something that changed my life,” Zelley told an audience in Washington, D.C. A friend of his brother, who was living life in a wheelchair, mentioned that he was a successful stockbroker. Zelley had an epiphany.

“If he can have a job and raise a family and have a career, and make money, and if he can live independently, if he can do all that, I can do that,” Zelley said he realized. “That peer support was a direct change in my life, right then.”

Since then, Zelley has been paying it forward. After returning to his successful business following rehab, he went on to launch the Disability Network, a consumer-driven, private nonprofit serving 6,000 individuals with disabilities based in Flint, Mich.

But paying it forward has been more difficult than he anticipated, in part because of the barriers created by a federal assistance program that ends up trapping people with disabilities rather than helping them return to their once-productive lifestyles.

SSDI, which is paid out through Medicare, provides a monthly cash benefit to disabled individuals to help them defray costs associated with their disability, like the costs of buying pedal controls for a van or new wheels for a wheelchair, or other household accommodations that help disabled people live as close to an independent life as they can.

But if a disabled person makes more than the allotted cash benefit each month, federal policy views that individual’s employment as “sustainable gainful activity” — wage replacement — and cuts off SSDI.

“It’s a spider trap,” said Zelley noting that $1,000 a month in income is below the poverty level.

And the web is getting larger. Fifty-four million Americans have a disability. In Michigan alone, 500,000 working-age people with disabilities are not employed despite 43 percent of them having a college degree.

In all, only one half of 1 percent of people on disability go back to work after becoming disabled. That’s a monumental talent drain considering 85 percent of disabled people acquire their disability during their lifetime, they are not born disabled. That means a lot of work experience, education, and other abilities is left on the table, displaced from the workforce.

“What is wrong with this picture? Why are we keeping people? Why are we trapping them?” Zelley asked.

“What a tragic waste of talent and skills,” he said, noting that the private workforce could also do more to encourage employment. “An accommodation is something that we all need (whether disabled or not). It’s not just good for business, it makes (all of us) more effective and productive.”

“My hope today is that you will see the importance of using all the talent that we have that is sitting on the sidelines. I am not my disability. … People are not their disability.”

As for Zelley, despite many prayers that he be able to walk again, he cannot. But he hasn’t lost his sense of humor about it.

Remembering once during Catholic services, when everyone stood for the gospel, he shifted his weight in his chair — something disabled people have to do to prevent pressure sores. The movement prompted the choir director to shout, “Holy Jesus, he’s going to walk.”

He won’t, but he said he wants to get more disabled “out of the spectator stands, off the bleachers, on the bench, beginning training, into the game.”