col Breaking barriers for young people with disabilities

By David Rude

Social Security Administration

Youth should be a time when we can dream big, when we envision futures as large and as alluring as our imaginations allow. But too many young people with disabilities feel bound by reminders of what they cannot do, instead of possibilities of what they can.

That's wrong.

At Social Security, I like to think that we are in the "can do" business, that we are pretty good at helping people create their own futures unbound by other people's expectations. And we are especially eager to play a part in helping young people with disabilities realize their dreams.


The number of young people who can use such help tells a story. The Census Bureau says that there are nearly two million people age 15 to 24 with a severe disability. Under the Social Security program, when a child who is getting a dependent's or survivor's benefit from Social Security reaches 18, those benefits generally stop unless the child is disabled. In those cases, benefits can continue as long as the child remains disabled, even into his or her adult years.

And if a young person goes to work and has 18 months of coverage under Social Security, then he or she would be eligible for disability benefits.

The Social Security Administration also pays monthly Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits to about 850,000 severely disabled young people under age 18. (Social Security is based on work, but the SSI program is not. It can make payments to people, including children, who are severely disabled and who have little income or resources.)

Our studies show that many people who enter the SSI program in their youth will stay in for many years. For example, a person under age 18 who qualifies for SSI can be expected to stay on SSI for more than 25 years. Someone who begins receiving SSI between ages 35 and 50 will be in the program, on average, less than 10 years.

Those numbers show that not enough is being done to help young people with disabilities, and our agency is working to improve that record. There are now several ways that Social Security and SSI can help young people receiving disability benefits who want to go to work. Some of these "work incentives" apply to both programs, and some apply only to one program.

Social Security and SSI

Help with work expenses.

Help with rehabilitation and training.


Social Security only

Continues cash benefits until a person can work on a regular basis.

Continues Medicare coverage for up to seven years, nine months.

SSI only

Excludes some monthly earnings for disabled students under age 22.

Allows people to set aside income for a work goal.

May continue Medicaid coverage even if a person's earnings prevent him or her from receiving a monthly SSI payment.

In all of these programs, the bottom line is increasing opportunity. As President Bush has said, "We can no longer accept the continued existence of barriers, whether physical or social, that unreasonably prevent persons with disabilities from full integration into our society."


Anyone with questions about these and other work incentive provisions that can help young people realize career dreams should visit Social Security's Web site at Or you can call our toll-free number at 1-800-772-1213 (TTY 1-800-325-0778).

David Rude is the Social Security district manager in Rochester.

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