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The Complete Guide to Independent Work for People with Disabilities

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A rewarding career path provides financial independence while appealing to your unique interests and skill set. To help you find independent work that matches your talents and passions and to help you identify internships, jobs and career support, the Credit.com team created this resource guide to independent work for adults with disabilities.

The guide covers ways to prepare for your career search, design a portfolio and find opportunities that inspire and support your long-term goals. It explores available tools and protections for navigating the interview process, arranging financial benefits and honing your skills with further training opportunities. It also touches on disability advocacy organizations and policies that can help guide your job search and career development.

Table of Contents

defining independent living

The History of the Independent Living Movement

Independent living is the idea that all people can live with dignity, make their own choices and fully participate in society. The independent living movement started in the 1960s when a group of Berkeley students with disabilities sought ways to break down barriers on campus and in the community.

The students taught themselves daily living skills and hired and trained personal assistants to provide physical support as needed. By reaching out to other people with disabilities, they created a new model for self-help and peer support. They developed guiding principles for fully integrating those with disabilities into the community through the Physically Disabled Students’ Program (PDSP). The guidelines provided a platform to enable people with disabilities to speak up for their needs throughout their educational experiences.

Independent living is now a worldwide movement that targets creating equal opportunities, self-determination and self-respect for people with disabilities. The movement supports the view that people with disabilities have the same rights, options and freedoms as people without disabilities.

Self-Determination and Independent Living

The PDSP paved the way for disability advocacy in tandem with similar rights movements and social leaders at the time. Over the next 70 years, these movements launched independent living legislation that led to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990. The ADA protects disabled individuals from workplace discrimination or exclusion from public programs. It also requires proper accommodations in public and private facilities as well as on communication devices.

A variety of additional laws and organizations now protect and uplift those seeking independent living support, educational opportunities and employment rights across the country.

Today’s independent living community provides tools to help people succeed and thrive at work. Companies are equipped to support each employee’s individual needs to best promote their professional success no matter the industry. Organizations inspired by the movement now provide valuable resources for getting started in and developing your chosen career path.

preparing for the job hunt

A vocational — or “transition” — portfolio can help you launch your career. A picture is worth a thousand words, and a vocational portfolio showcases your interests, range of skills and development over a period of time in a way that a resume may not convey. It’s a visual history of the work you’ve done, as well as your talents, successes and strengths. You can give it to a potential employer to demonstrate your abilities, work and experience.

A transition portfolio walks an employer through your background, training and skills. Depending on your preference and circumstance, student transition portfolios can also include photos and outlines that detail your past work routines and responsibilities. It lets you have a conversation with your prospective employer about the accommodations you need, your personal preferences and your experiences at various work sites.

how to arrange a vocational portfolio

Job Training

If you’re wondering about your eligibility for services to help you prepare for and maintain a job, look into Vocational Rehabilitation (VR). Career and skills coaching, on-the-job training and job search assistance are just a few VR offerings. VR is a U.S. Department of Education funded program that serves all people with all types of disabilities through the Rehabilitation Services Administration (RSA). The RSA oversees grant programs that provide vocational rehabilitation to help individuals with disabilities find employment and live more independently.

Continued Education

If you’re a parent or student investigating college opportunities and accommodations, the following resources are available.

  • Wrightslaw. This site curates some of the best content on the web for families and students investigating college, such as a quick guide to accommodations for the SAT, college planning for students with learning disabilities and education planners.
  • Learn How 2 Become: The career resources area of this site has a section dedicated to financial aid and scholarships for students with disabilities, since classroom accommodations and transportation costs can be greater than those for a nondisabled student.

choosing the best career path

The right job should use your strengths, inspire you to develop your skills and provide support through comprehensive health benefits. A number of assistive technologies and accommodations can help you reach your career goals and succeed on the job.

Employment Resources

Here are some job sites specifically for people with disabilities and employers:

  • GettingHired. This organization is dedicated to helping individuals and veterans with disabilities connect with inclusive employers. It offers a job board, veteran and student resources and a blog to help users discover career paths suited to their interests and abilities.
  • Job Accommodation Network (JAN). JAN offers a Searchable Online Accommodation Resource (SOAR) system that lets users explore various accommodation options for people with disabilities in work and educational settings. It also has a staff of experienced consultants available to discuss your specific needs for accommodation.
  • Ticket to Work. A department of the Social Security Administration, Ticket to Work connects you with free employment services to help you decide if working is right for you, prepare for work, find a job or succeed on the job.
  • Pathways to Employment. This site helps people with disabilities make informed decisions about going to work. It’s geared towards residents of Washington State, but some of its tools, such as its benefits estimator and resume builder, apply to anyone.
  • ABILITY Jobs and Job Access. All jobs posted on this site are from employers specifically looking to hire people with disabilities.
  • Sierra Group Full Disabilities Job Board. This site features career information, a resume-building tool, job search engine and job alerts that message you when something is posted that meets your specified criteria.

On-Site Careers

On-site careers give you the benefits of structure and socialization. Thanks to modern technology that provides new accommodations for people with disabilities, there are more on-site career options than ever before.

on-site careers

  • Medical and health services manager. This career pays an average salary of $98,350 in the U.S. and comes with job security. Many administrative roles don’t require workers to be on their feet, so this can be an exciting field for those with mobility impairments. Some healthcare organizations offer specific career development programs to encourage those with disabilities to enter the field.
  • Pharmaceutical sales representative. The pharmaceutical industry encourages those with disabilities to develop careers as sales representative and technician services. Outgoing candidates can thrive in sales-based careers, and opportunities in the pharmaceutical field continue to increase. In 2018, the average salary for a pharma sales representative was $133,563.
  • School or career counselor. The position requires empathy, creativity and the ability to think outside the box to help every student find success. Median salaries range from $49,000 to $62,000 a year depending on the school setting.
  • Landscape architect. Flexible work schedule and contract opportunities allow artistic individuals to collaborate on civil and private landscape projects. According to Glassdoor, landscape architects make an average annual base pay of $65,138.
  • Physician assistant. A rewarding field with a median salary of $89,097 in the U.S., this field offers an excellent outlook for growth.
  • Software engineer. This growing industry offers ongoing growth and training opportunities as well as salaries over $100,000 a year. There’s also a growing movement to diversify the tech industry by welcoming more employees with disabilities.

Standout Companies and Policies

Some companies stand out when it comes to hiring and advocating for those with disabilities:

  • IBM has long been a pioneer in accessibility for people with disabilities. The company developed a program for hiring and training individuals with disabilities in the 1940s and still promotes an accessible workplace today. In addition to strong hiring practices, some of the tech company’s earliest products include braille typewriters and keyboards.
  • Aetna, a health insurance provider, has a long track record of hiring individuals with disabilities and providing accommodations, such as flexible break schedules. AetnAbilities is an employee resource group for those with disabilities and their allies. The company also offers remote positions with good benefits and a healthy work-life balance.
  • Ernst & Young, a multinational professional services firm, was named one of the Top 12 companies for people with disabilities by DiversityInc. The company offers disability awareness training for all employees, as well as alternative career tracks and the opportunity to telecommute.
  • Insurance company Humana was named a “Top 25 Noteworthy Company” by DiversityInc in 2015. The company is committed to inclusion and focuses on hiring veterans with disabilities. It offers a variety of remote positions and health and financial benefits with the potential to earn overtime and bonuses.

Remote Careers

When a company offers benefits, such as flexible work schedules with opportunities to work from home on occasion or exclusively, it can indicate that the company has an inclusive policy.

A remote full-time job means that you’re employed by the company but telecommute from outside the office. The advantages of a full-time remote position are that you’re eligible for company benefits, cut out daily travel, and at times, work within a flexible schedule.

Remote workers may also choose to freelance with one or a range of companies. This often provides greater control over your weekly schedule and workload and allows you to tailor your career to your specific interests. A freelance position rarely receives company benefits, however, though some companies do transition freelancers to full-time or on-site employees.

Off-site freelance or full-time positions require the self-discipline to work independently, develop and maintain your own schedule and seek new clients when you’re looking to expand your career. The benefits of freelancing can be invaluable to those with a disability, providing flexibility both in the variety of work and daily routine.

Remote career opportunities for those with disabilities include telecommuting and freelancing options.

Telecommuter

  • Financial services. Financial institutions are among the top employers for people with disabilities. Accounting and financial planning are promising fields with high projected growth.
  • Management consultants. Management consultants guide leadership teams to help companies expand and modernize. People with a range of specialties and backgrounds can offer valuable expertise as a professional consultant on a contract basis.
  • Customer service. Many companies seek employees to work off-site while providing full-time or flexible customer support online or by phone. If you thrive in a customer-focused position, this is an opportunity to grow with a company without a local office.
  • Tech support. Similar to customer service roles, tech support positions can be managed offsite and through total use of phone or computer. Electronic accommodations can be made for people with disabilities, such as blindness (braille computer displays) or deafness (voice commands).

Freelancer

Freelancing is a legitimate work-from-home opportunity and can give you full-time hours or be the side income you’re looking for.

  • Real estate broker. Brokers and agents often have the flexibility to work from home or set appointments at times that work best for them. Many would-be homeowners have full-time jobs during the week, so it’s easy to set appointments in the evenings or on the weekends.
  • Writer. If you enjoy writing, you can look for prospective clients on sites like Upwork and Freelancer. Many of the assignments allow you to flex your creativity, and you can charge higher rates as you get more experience.
  • Medical transcriptionist. Medical transcriptionists transcribe physicians’ notes. There are many adaptive technologies available to help individuals with disabilities perform this type of work. If you want to forgo the extensive training, you can pursue becoming a law transcriber for an online service like SpeakWrite.
  • Online tutor. Passionate educators connect with students remotely through online classroom and tutoring programs. If you have a bachelor’s degree, teach experience and good communication skills, online tutoring can be a good fit.

With remote and freelance careers on the rise, there are several helpful platforms for finding the right position for you. FlexJobs offers client support through its remote job search as well as how to balance a freelancer lifestyle. Job search engines like Indeed, Idealist and LinkedIn also allow you to search for remote positions.

networking tips people with disabilties

The objectives of networking are to let people know you’re actively searching for a job, learn more about careers that fit your unique abilities and meet peers who know more about which accommodations can help ensure your success on the job.

To build your network and find people who can be instrumental in getting you in the door for an interview, you need to understand your own strengths and necessary accommodations and then begin to map out a networking approach.

  • Do informational interviews. Some companies are well-known for their inclusive policies. Look into one or two that might have a position you’re interested in and a culture that would make you feel comfortable. Contact the receptionist or someone in HR and ask who would is the best person to talk to about the type of work you hope to do. Not only does the informational interview help you practice, it also lets you build your network.
  • Be clear about what you want. When you’re speaking with others about the kind of job you want, articulate what you bring to the position. Consider the concerns you think others may have about your disability and how to respond to them. Write out your goals, strengths and any assistance you need to be successful. This can give you more clarity and conviction when you meet a potential contact.
  • Reach out. Let your contacts know you’re looking for a job. If your contact knows about your disability, he/she may be able to refer you to a company with an inclusive policy or help you think about accommodations to ensure your success in a future position. Make sure to include your recent job experience and update your contacts as you complete additional education.
  • Attend a networking event. Consider a career fair that puts you in touch with employers that are interested in interviewing prospective employees with disabilities. You can attend these either in person or online. Some resources are listed below.
  • Maintain your network. Keep a list of people that can help you in your job search and others that can offer you advice, support and feedback on your career. Checking in with your contacts periodically ensures you’re top of mind when the time is right for you to start your job search again.

Resources

Job fairs aren’t only a good networking opportunity, but give you practice with face-to-face interviewing and can even help you land a job.

  • ABILITY Jobs and Job Access. In addition to its job search engine, this site hosts online career fairs so you can have face-to-face interviews with recruiters.
  • People with Disabilities (ADA) Pavilion. This group holds Annual Diversity Employment Day Career Fairs throughout the country where employers actively seek individuals with disabilities. You can check its website for the 2019 schedule.
  • Bender Consulting Services. The mission of this group is to recruit and hire people with disabilities for competitive career opportunities. The Bender Virtual Career Fair allows employers and job seekers to network from the comfort of their homes or offices.

setting up your finances and benefits

Finances

Whether you’re currently employed or not, you need to have your finances in order. The first step to setting up your finances is developing a budget. If your disability causes you to struggle financially or to be out of work for an extended period of time, it can be tempting to use a credit card to make ends meet. Paying for living expenses, such as rent or groceries with a credit card is a short-term solution, but can hurt you in the long run.

Setting aside money in your budget for times when you might be unable to work due to your disability is a better solution. Once you’ve developed a financial plan, you feel more in control of your money and are able to work toward future goals, such as buying a car or a home.

Living with a disability can add specific challenges to financial planning, but finding ways to save on living expenses and set aside money for future plans can help you meet your financial goals:

  • PASS (Plan to Achieve Self Support) account. Administered by the Social Security Administration, PASS is designed to help people with disabilities return to work. It lets an individual set aside money to pay for items or services needed for a specific work goal.
  • Discounts. Governments, nonprofits and businesses offer discounts to individuals with disabilities on recreational activities, utilities, home modifications and more. Advocacy organizations also explain the best ways to find these opportunities both online and in your community.
  • Open a savings account. Allocating small amounts from your budget build up savings over time. Savings accounts protect money set aside for long-term plans from impulse spending. Even when things are tight, there are often creative ways to work toward your savings goals each month.

Tax Breaks

Individuals with disabilities are eligible for a wide range of tax breaks, but tax laws vary by circumstance. Here are a few tax breaks that might be available to you:

  • An ABLE account. This is a tax-advantaged savings account for individuals with disabilities and their families. An ABLE account helps individuals save for medical expenses without reducing their eligibility for government benefits.
  • Impairment-related work expenses. You can deduct the cost of equipment and services that allow you to successfully perform your work with a disability.
  • Medical expenses. As of January 1, 2019, you can deduct allowable unreimbursed medical expenses that go beyond 10% of your adjusted gross income. This is only favorable if you choose to itemize deductions.
  • Larger standard deductions for the blind. The Internal Revenue Service considers legal blindness as a visual field of less than 20 degrees, vision that can’t be corrected to 20/200 with corrective lenses or no eyesight at all.

Benefits

All employees — full-time or freelance — can take advantage of a range of options for health insurance benefits. Explore USA.gov’s benefits breakdown for those with disabilities for specific program details. There are two main ways to get benefit packages:

Through an Employer

Insurance coverage plans offered through employers must accept all employees, regardless of a disability, and offer you savings as part of a group. If your employer pays a portion of the premiums as part of your full compensation package, the benefits may be considered taxable income.

Note that employer-supported coverage ends when your employment ends, though you can pay out-of-pocket to extend employer coverage up to 18 months through the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act or the COBRA health insurance program.

  • Employer-offered health insurance. Depending on your disability status, you might want to participate in your employer’s group plan. Review the plan carefully and decide if the coverage meets your specific needs.
  • Health savings accounts (HSAs): If your employer offers what’s known as a High Deductible Health Plan (HDHP)—which requires at least $1,350 deductible for an individual plan—an HSA allows you to contribute up to $3,500 pre-tax dollars a year to a medical savings account. With an HSA, you can withdraw money to pay for qualifying medical expenses without penalty and carry your balance from job to job. The plan is yours even if you leave your job. And you may even earn interest on your HSA.
  • Flexible spending accounts (FSA): Though similar to HSAs, FSAs don’t require an HDHP plan but end when you leave your job. An FHA lets you set aside a specific amount of pre-tax income each year to use for qualifying uncovered expenses in your plan. Funds must be used by a set date each year or are forfeited.

When Freelancing

If you’re freelancing, an independent contractor or between jobs, and don’t have access to an employer’s health insurance program, it’s still a good idea to invest in health insurance. Finding yourself out of work can be hard on your finances if you don’t have insurance or a support system to fall back on. And if you pay for the policy yourself, all of the benefits are tax-free.

  • HealthCare.gov. The Affordable Care Act (ACA) created a health insurance marketplace for people without access to insurance.
  • Medicare and Medicaid. Medicare is a government-sponsored plan that extends health care coverage to people with certain disabilities after a waiting period. Medicaid is a state-sponsored program that offers affordable insurance to people with disabilities. If you don’t qualify for disability status and are within the 24-month waiting period for Medicare, you can apply for Medicaid or a private health plan with premium tax credits through HealthCare.gov.
  • Freelancers Union. By joining the Freelancers Union, you have the option to sign up for health, dental, disability, life and retirement insurance. It also provides support, advocacy guidance and community as a freelance worker.

additional resources

Advocacy organizations across the U.S. provide resources for the disabled. These organizations can help you with issues at work, with education and with daily life.

  • Learning Disabilities Association of America (LDDA). In addition to advocacy efforts, the LDAA offers job accommodation ideas and other resources to assist people with disabilities seeking employment.
  • Mobility International USA. This nonprofit advances the rights of individuals with mobility impairments and works to improve global inclusion of people with disabilities through international exchange.
  • American Foundation for the Blind (AFB). The AFB provides employment information, career exploration, portfolio-building tools and job-seeking guidance for individuals with vision loss.
  • National Association of the Deaf (NAD). The NAD provides a range of resources for people who are deaf or hard of hearing, including education, vocational rehabilitation and help securing reasonable accommodations.
  • Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP). This site is a helpful resource for learning about your rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the comprehensive law that protects disabled individuals from discrimination in all aspects of public life.

Conclusion

Having a disability shouldn’t stand in the way of pursuing your dream career. A successful job search always comes down to clearly presenting your skills and experience and reaching out for help and guidance when you need it. With the right level of support and information, you can transition to a job that celebrates your skills, passions and goals for the future.

When you get there, it feels good to have a job to call your own, one that you can do with pride. It’s also satisfying to manage your own money. And building credit is an important part of setting up your finances.

Your credit score helps financial institutions determine how responsible you are when paying back your loans and credit card debt. The higher your score, the easier it is to achieve your financial goals. Some employers even check your score as part of the job application process. You can get your Experian score for free, right here on Credit.com to see where you stand today and find tips to improve your score if needed.

From the Credit.com team: best of luck in your job search.


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