Episode 89 VR Workforce Studio

Avoiding the benefits cliff and ABLEnow with Maya Simmons and Mary Morris


Rick Sizemore, rick.sizemore@dars.virginia.gov 540-688-7552 @vrworkforce

WWRC Foundation Lynn Harris, Foundation Director, lharris@wwrcf.org 540-332-7542 540-430-4490.

Council of State Administrators of Vocational Rehabilitation and the National Employment Team

ABLEnow, 844-NOW-ABLE (1-844-669-2253), able-now.com

Forbes article on benefits

National Clearinghouse for Rehabilitation Training Materials
Cherie Takemoto, PhD Project Director/Senior Research Analyst 
ctakemoto@neweditions.net 703-356-8035 ext. 107  @RSA_NCRTM

Virginia Department for Aging and Rehabilitative Services

Rehabilitation Services Administration  

National Rehabilitation Association

Department of Labor Office of Disability Employment Policy

Wilson Workforce and Rehabilitation Center  540-332-7000 or 800-345-9972

George Dennehy with the Goo Goo Dolls  George Dennehy

Lead On Lead On VR Music Video featuring George Dennehy and the Voices of Rehabilitation
Click Here for the Music Video

Lead On Lead On Karaoke – Free Downloadnow you can sing the VR National Anthem with a professional soundtrack from your phone.  Click Here for the Free Karaoke Video

Special thanks to CVS Health, The Hershey Company and CSAVR and the WWRC Foundation for this support of the VR National Anthem

Voice Talent by Steve Sweeney

Maya Simmons

Maya Simmons

Mary Morris

Resources from the National Clearinghouse of Rehabilitation Training Materials (NCRTM)

Employment Strategies: Financial Literacy Resources Roundup. (E3TC) Financial Literacy Training gives people the chance to develop skills and knowledge about personal money management. It also helps people with low and moderate incomes to develop a plan for their financial future, buy a home or start a business. This resource roundup features best practices/research, training, and examples this strategy in targeted communities.

Inclusive Financial Education Toolkit. The National Disability Institute’s free financial well-being tools can be downloaded and used to help individuals, families, financial institutions, and community partners improve the financial well-being of people with disabilities. The disability supplemental guides cover disability sensitivity and information to complement the Hands on Banking® instructor guides for adults, young adults and entrepreneurship.

Getting Started with Financial Literacy. The Maine Department of Labor has identified, lessons, resources, activities, games, videos, apps, and other ways to teach financial literacy to young people with disabilities.

Resource Lists from Workforce GPS
Disability and Financial Capability Strategies Financial capability strategies for personal savings, managing credit, and budgeting are critical for sustaining financial security for people with disabilities.

Disability Focus Tax Incentives – Employers and Individuals with Disabilities, The year-end clock is ticking – it is a good time to get tax records in order. Businesses accommodating or hiring employees with disabilities may qualify for tax credits and deductions. Individuals with disabilities may qualify to contribute to a tax-advantaged savings account like ABLE  to fund disability expenses.

Bonus resource not covered in the podcast
The ABLE National Resource Center (ABLE NRC) Toolkit. Centralized location to access printable ABLE-related education and information for individuals with disabilities and their families, ABLE administrators and managers, financial institutions, government agencies, special needs attorneys, and disability-related service providers, with a centralized virtual location to quickly access printable ABLE-related education and information.


Maya Simmons:  It’s okay that you’re different. Your disability doesn’t define you. The obstacles in life that you go through doesn’t define you. You get to decide who you can be and what you can become in this world.

Speaker 2:  Four, three, two, one.

Announcer:  VR Workforce Studio, podcasting the sparks that ignite vocational rehabilitation through the inspiring stories of people with disabilities who have gone to work.

Rose Hilderbrand:  I have a position at Masco Cabinetry.

Veteran: I’m a supervisor.

Announcer:  As well as the professionals who have helped them.

James Hall:  A job, and a career, you got to look at how life changing this is.

Announcer:  And the businesses who have filled their talent pipelines with workers that happen to have disabilities.

Debby Hopkins:  To help expand registered apprenticeship.

Announcer:  These are their stories.

Megan Healy:  Because it’s such a great story to tell about people with disabilities.

Announcer:  Now here’s the host of the VR workforce studio. Rick Sizemore.

Rick Sizemore:  Welcome to episode 89 of the VR Workforce Studio Podcast, avoiding the benefits cliff for people with disabilities. And how ABLEnow is becoming a viable option for people with disabilities to plan their financial futures, using ABLE accounts for crucial expenses that won’t affect their benefits. After 35 years serving people with disabilities and hearing about this issue directly, especially from guests on this show and in the disability community, I’m convinced we’re talking about one of the most important issues facing people with disabilities today, especially those that want to go to work. When you get right down to it, there are a significant number of people with disabilities who do not go to work or get higher paying jobs because they’ll lose their benefits.

Now, the threshold for losing benefits is very low and for a person who’s counting on those benefits for their very survival, you can only imagine the fear that exists when a person goes through vocational rehabilitation and takes that step into the workforce, not knowing how solid that first job and more importantly, that first paycheck, will ultimately be plus the specter of losing those benefits and then going off the cliff, if that first job through no fault of their own doesn’t last. This issue is described in Forbes magazine, on governmental websites and a variety of other sources you can easily find a with a quick Google search.

But on today’s show, we discuss how a person can move into the workforce and shelter some of their earnings to ease that transition and get themselves into a stable economic position before they give up their benefits. Later today, we talk with the CEO of Virginia529 and ABLEnow, as well as staff from the Virginia Department for Aging and Rehabilitative Services  who are helping vocational rehabilitation clients plan for their careers, including how they’ll manage their money. Well, there’s no better way to explore this topic than with someone who is living it.

In today’s big inspiration showcase, Maya Simmons, a student at Old Dominion University with imminent plans to move into the education system as a special education teacher, talks about her disability, vocational rehabilitation and how she’s planning to manage her finances when she moves into the workforce. Maya, welcome to the podcast.

Maya Simmons:  Thank you. Thank you for having me. I’m excited to be here.

Rick Sizemore:  Tell me a little bit about yourself and your work at ODU.

Maya Simmons:  I am a student and Old Dominion University studying Elementary Special Education. I am in my final year, so I’m really, really excited about that. Working on a student teaching for the spring semester coming up, so that’s been a really big focus even with vocational rehab. How do we plan for that? So that that can be the most successful as possible. I also do a lot of disability advocacy work as well.

Rick Sizemore:  How did you get involved with vocational rehabilitation?

Maya Simmons:  I got involved with vocational rehab a few years before graduating high school, and it was a way to transition through the process of figuring out what type of career I wanted, whether I wanted to go to college or training school. So we started working with them around junior year of high school with some career assessments and deciding what my interests were and what would work best with me as far as my disability, whether I needed to go to a community college and then transfer to a university. And so that’s really how we got started with transition planning to we’re ending the high school journey, is really when I started working with vocational rehab.

Rick Sizemore:  And fortunately for us, you’re going into teaching. That’s exciting.

Maya Simmons:  Yes. Super, super exciting.

Rick Sizemore:  Well, you mentioned your disability and maybe you could share with us just a little bit about your disability.

Maya Simmons:  Sure. I have cerebral palsy. I was born three months premature and I was told I would never walk, never talk. The idea of even college is literally a miracle, if I could say that.

Rick Sizemore:  You certainly may. That’s great.

Maya Simmons:  Just because it wasn’t something that we even imagined could happen. And so to be someone going into Special Education with a disability myself is really a great opportunity because I feel like as a teacher, I can inspire lots of students and let them know that it’s okay, that you’re different. Your disability doesn’t define you. The obstacles in life that you go through, doesn’t define you. You get to decide who you can be and what you can become in this world. And so that’s my disability. Also, I have a vision impairment as well, and so yeah, that’s really my story.

Rick Sizemore:  The potential for you to reach students who are in Special-Ed classes and do just what you said, to inspire them because of the relate-ability is just extremely powerful.

Maya Simmons:   That’s my hope. Obviously my routes Special Education is a lot different than most educators. Most educators learn what they know through a book, but I actually have the life experience plus the educational piece, which makes it even more exciting to be able to have the opportunity to do it.

Rick Sizemore:  Truly authentic. You’ll be moving into a career, and because of the Workforce Innovation Opportunities Act, a focus on a career that’s going to provide a good salary. You have an ABLEnow account. Could you tell us how that came about?

Maya Simmons:  Actually, I started inquiring about the ABLEnow several years ago. I had had some friends who had it and going to different conferences and speaking of course. I’d heard about the ABLEnow, but I wasn’t really clear on how it works, how you enroll, things like that, but it was always something I kind of knew about for a while. And then a couple of months ago, I was talking with my vocational rehabilitation counselor about transitioning into the work world and wanting to eventually become financially independent and move out on my own and do all the normal things that most adults are able to do.

And so we discussed the able account and I met with someone that actually helps you enroll and go through the application process. And so we were able to do that just this year. So it’s a new start for me, but I’m very pleased with what ABLE has allowed me to do, far as being able to save and become financially stable and then have the life that I would like to have. So I’m very pleased with that.

Rick Sizemore:  Well, that’s so exciting to hear you discuss your future in terms of earning your own way. But many people with disabilities, they really have a lot of fear about transitioning from a time in their life where they have maybe social security benefits, and then they have to give those up, moving to gainful employment in the workforce. How will ABLE help you with that?

Maya Simmons:  And you are absolutely right. That is a true fear and concern. For me before even enrolling in the able account, it was very important for me to understand everything about it so that I knew exactly what I was signing up for. And that was really something that I thought was important because as you said, there are fears about losing benefits. So I did have a conversation and really did my own research and tried to put them as informed as possible in order to take that next step. And then once we got the ABLE account, I started planning on what were some of the things that I wanted to save for, or what were the things that were going to be important for me to establish my career. And as a person with a disability assistive technology is really a lifeline for independence and for careers, especially if you have a vision impairment or motor impairment, orthopedic impairment. That’s really something that I wanted to be able to use the ABLE account for, to establish that assistive technology that would make me successful in my career as a teacher.

I also looked at saving for my own home or apartment. How can I do that independently? I looked at transportation. I live in a very rural part of Virginia where transportation is not readily available publicly. So I’m very dependent on friends and family to get back and forth from school, medical appointments. Really to be independent, I really do need their support with transportation. So I felt like the ABLE account would allow me the opportunity to be able to supplement those individuals that were willing to volunteer their time, to make sure that I could do the things that really were important and vital for me to be a productive member of society.

So that’s really what I’ve looked at with the ABLE account. How can I be as independent as possible in all of those aspects? As well as some recreational things too. The ABLE account will allow me to able to travel if that’s what I want to do or say for further education as well. I’m just finishing up the bachelor’s, so of course in some time master’s degree will be on the list of things to accomplish. And financial aid is a lot different when you get into grad school. So I really liked that as long as it was a necessity for you as a person with a disability, you would be able to save for it. That was very important to me when it came to the ABLE account.

Rick Sizemore:  Maya is a student at Old Dominion University planning to do her student teaching and then move into the workforce. Thank you so much for being on the podcast today.

Maya Simmons:  Thank you for having me. It was a pleasure.

Rick Sizemore:  At the core of every great team is the drive and motivation that creates the bonds of commitment, dedication, and performance needed for every worthwhile achievement. At DARS, this passion take shape in our care and protection for Virginia’s older adults, as well as helping people who happen to have disabilities find meaningful careers. From The back office, to the field, to the front lines of customer care, we’re driven forward by the needs of those we serve, because the heartbeat of DARS is onward.

Rick Sizemore:  Michael Klinger is a Work Incentive Specialist with the Virginia Department for Aging and Rehabilitative Services, assists clients who are moving into the workforce. Welcome, Michael.

Michael Klinger:  Glad to be here. Thanks for having me.

Rick Sizemore:  Why does DARS work with clients to help them prepare for financial success?

Michael Klinger:  We just don’t want people placed in any jobs, but jobs that would allow them to maximize their employment earnings potential. And what we found in a lot of the counseling and guidance work we’re doing with clients, is that they were either very reluctant to work or they purposely took lower paying jobs that wouldn’t have such a large impact on their benefits. And the reason for that is because of a misconception that people are needs-based benefits, like a SSI or Medicaid shouldn’t work or work at such low levels that it wouldn’t impact their benefits a great deal, since historically people on these benefits couldn’t save more than $2,000.

So our approach to counseling and guidance in terms of benefits and work incentives is to use financial literacy initiatives such as educating people on ABLE, like we’ll be talking about, as a way to help clients shift their focus from how benefits will decrease as they go to work to how their overall disposable income will increase. People are almost always better off financially when they work as they would beyond benefits alone. And we educate people on the availability of things like ABLE accounts that helps people build savings without jeopardizing eligibility for needs-based benefits, people are more encouraged to take higher paying jobs that will ultimately lead to self support.

Rick Sizemore:  Tell us about ABLE.

Michael Klinger:  So that happens through our work and send our specialist advocate or WISA program. And WISA vendors are individuals who are certified Work Incentives Practitioners. The first part is actually helping a client set up the account. And the second part is working with them to develop a savings and spending plan detailing how much the client intends to save every month and what sort of expenses they intend to spend that money at. And the goal of that is to help the clients understand what sort of expenses they can use the funds for, and it’s our hope that as people work and they see their savings go up, it’ll serve as a motivator for the client to not only continue to work, but work towards the earnings goals so that they can continue to afford to pay for the things that they want and need.

Rick Sizemore:  Michael Klinger works for Virginia Department for Aging Rehabilitative Services. Thank you for being on the podcast today.

Michael Klinger:  Thank you very much, Rick.

Rick Sizemore:  You know, so many of the guests that we have on our show talk about the crucial role that finances play in the lives of people with disabilities. Many people with disabilities who are planning to start a job often worry about how their new paycheck might negatively affect their benefits. That’s why I’m excited about ABLEnow, because they believe everyone deserves the opportunity to save for the future.

ABLEnow empowers people with disabilities to save for today’s needs or invest for tomorrow in an account that won’t impact most means-tested benefits, such as Medicaid and SSI. An ABLEnow account allows you to save money for expenses to improve your health, independence, or expenses you need to improve the quality of your life. It’s time to think about what you want to accomplish this year, even financially. This may be the perfect time to see if you or someone you know is eligible for an ABLEnow account. Contacting ABLEnow could be the most important decision you make this year. So don’t delay. Open your ABLEnow account today.

Learn more about visiting able-now.com or check the podcast show notes for a complete listing of ABLEnow contact information. ABLEnow, tax-advantaged savings for individuals with disabilities.

Mary Morris is the chief executive officer of Virginia529, the largest tax-advantaged education savings program in the country with its direct invest 529 and Advisor College America programs, Virginia529 launched the tax advantaged disability savings program ABLEnow in 2016 and ABLE America in 2018. Mary directs and manages the operations, resources and investments at Virginia529 and is routinely showcased as a national speaker on education savings, the future of higher education and workforce training and disability savings. Welcome to the podcast, Mary.

Mary Morris:  Well, thanks for having me. It’s great to be with you.

Rick Sizemore:  Yeah. So many people with disabilities planning to return to work are concerned about how returning to work will affect their finances and particularly their benefits. Tell us about ABLEnow and how they might be involved.

Mary Morris:  Sure. Well ABLEnow really helps. There’s not as much on the income side of things, but it does on the asset side with respect to most benefits. So an ABLEnow account can be a real help to individuals with disability who have additional costs. And maybe those are costs that are involved in being able to return to work, whether that’s special computer or computer equipment or software, or, whatever that might be, any modalities that would be helpful, an ABLEnow account can assist with that because you can let it grow and not worry about violating the asset test, for most benefits.

Your ABLEnow account is attached first and foremost, to an interest-bearing checking account that has a debit card, but then you can also, as the account grows, move some of it over into investments. And so it’s a vehicle that you can use for both short-term and mid to long-term savings and investment goals.

Rick Sizemore:  When you spend time with people with disabilities that are involved in job training, they’re involved in getting on the career pathway, one of the most significant fears they have is that transition from having some sort of benefit to moving into gainful employment, competitive, integrated employment, and then losing that stability. So they’re trading away and sometimes in very vulnerable circumstances their security for an unknown future and having to give up that benefit is very, very, very fearful. And people do that successfully in different types of circumstances. But do you have a favorite story about how ABLEnow has helped someone make that transition or reach their goals and dreams?

Mary Morris:  Well, we have one young man who was forming a business, does some consulting has significant needs, really mostly mobility related, had the training, has been to college, can have a business and can run that. But with having to I think continue to rely on his parents, not so much again from the income side of it, because that was growing a little bit more slowly, he was just starting out to build this consulting business, but no place to put the money. Once you have that revenue, where do you put it? Where does the asset go? And wanted to retain control of it. And that’s one of the things that I see is particularly helpful with an ABLEnow account is that the individual who is seeking employment, who is growing in that direction is becoming more independent by having that competitive employment can actually then manage their money and learn about how to do that, because we see that as a really significant issue, sometimes.

If individuals have not been able to gather assets and have anything out of that very small amount, they really haven’t learned how to manage money and how to set up a budget and balance a budget and figure out how much money needs to be spending each month for various types of things. And more importantly, save for the down payment that you might need to run an apartment or/and put all of your utility connections on and all those things that you would need to do to be successful and live independently and ABLEnow account can really help.

Rick Sizemore:  What are the ways that the ABLE account helps? You talked about financial literacy, the training and information. Is that online courses? How do people gain skills and how to manage their money? How do they actually do that?

Mary Morris:  Yeah, we do have some short things and some links to materials on both ABLEnow website, as well as if you have an ABLEnow account, there are materials once you get online that will lead you in and give you some assistance on just some basic financial education concepts. And we tried to just with everything that’s on our website, provide information, articles that are of interest on tips and again, financial topics. So we’re not just talking about, “Oh, here’s how you open up your account. Here’s how you put money in,” that’s important, but it’s broader than that. It’s about how do you plan, how do you do budgets? And so one of the things just having the ABLEnow account helps you with that and there are notations. And so there are some tools within the account that help you manage the money.

You might have information that you can get, the notations that you can make when you make a purchase so that you can keep track of what are medical expenses, what are education expenses, what are housing and transportation expenses, all of which are qualified, ABLE expenses. I think that’s something I would want your listeners to understand that an ABLE account can be used for a very broad variety of expenses. So it really is about all the things that you need to have a good quality of life, so anything that enhances that. So you can use an ABLEnow funds for your housing, for your transportation, for work-related expenses, anything additional from medical expenses, for counseling, for any types of therapies and trainings that you might need, for extracurricular types of things, for food lodging, very broad.

Rick Sizemore:  Well, let me drill into one specific area that’s such an interest area for so many people. And you talked about mobility —-vehicles. How can ABLEnow help if someone needs to put part of their income toward a vehicle?

Mary Morris:  Sure. That’s sort of midterm-savings goal is for an ABLE account. And we’re finding that with the accounts that we have. There’s a fair money, a lot of money that goes in and goes back out fairly quickly. And it is designed for that because you have that checking account component. But if you save up over a period of a couple of years, then you can save enough to put a significant down payment down on a car and then have the money to pay for it. Or if you have a vehicle and it needs to have… If there’s an expense to retrofit it so that it addresses whatever the mobility needs are, that’s a possibility as well. That may take some time. The other nice thing about an ABLE account is that it is set up to accept gifts from anywhere.

So you might use a GoFundMe account. A lot of times there might be a church group or friends and family or whatever they want to assist. If there’s a goal and it’s like, this person can be mobile, they can that enhanced quality of life if they just had a vehicle, and that’s just not as out of reach right now, then you could put that together. So this is a nice little benefit to an individual putting it in for themselves or for friends and family putting money into an ABLE account. And then the benefit is that the funds can grow, and then over hopefully shorter period of time, you might be able to acquire the vehicle or something else that would really enhance quality of life and make you better able to find employment.

Rick Sizemore:  What else would you like for everyone to know about ABLEnow?

Mary Morris:  What is crystal clear is Congress’s commitment to these accounts, helping individuals who are employed and who want to be employed. And I say that because the one major legislative enhancement that happened a couple of years ago was the ABLE to Work Act. And that allows an individual who is employed and has employment income to put an additional 12,000 almost $500 into an ABLE account. That tells me that they’re committed to the employment piece of it, into allowing individuals to help with that transition. I think that’s something that folks should just know that they have some powerful advocates who are working with organizations like yours and other organizations working with disability communities across the country to get those enhancements and those legislative changes. So we’re taking our government relations folks and our expertise in how to work with Congress and turning it to looking at what can you do? What are the abilities and how do we help empower people to make them more independent, creating their own quality of life.

Rick Sizemore:  Such a pleasure and an honor to have you on our podcast. Mary Morris is the CEO of Virginia529 and ABLEnow. Thank you for being on the podcast today, Mary.

Mary Morris:  Well, thank you so much for having me and for providing an opportunity for us to get the word out more about these programs, because that is one area we are too many just don’t know about them yet. So I hope that all of your listeners will think about it and pass the information on hopefully this will help more folks.

Rick Sizemore:  It’s time for our National Clearinghouse update with Cherie Takemoto. Cherie, what did you think of Maya?

Cherie Takemoto:  Rick you really outdid yourself with Maya. Not only has she learned how to get off of those benefits and be financially successful, but she is going to be a Special Education teacher. And I love that because many people think that they have a disability—- means that they can’t work, but she’s going to show folks from early ages that they can be successful, that they can work and that they can inspire others themselves. Exactly.

Rick Sizemore:  And really inspire students in the classroom.

Cherie Takemoto:  Heck, she inspires me.

Rick Sizemore:  Absolutely. Well, what do you have in the Clearinghouse for us this month?

Cherie Takemoto:  Well, to get young people started with financial literacy, the first thing I have is National Disability Institutes, inclusive financial education toolkit. There’s a lot of things for individuals and their families, but also a nice guide and instructional manual for folks who want to teach this to others. The other is getting started with financial literacy from the Maine department of labor.

Rick Sizemore:  Awesome. What else do you got for us this month?

Cherie Takemoto:  Well, E3TC has these nice resource guides that feature training example of how the strategy is used in communities, best practices, research, and resources. And then I have Workforce GPS from the Department of Labor who has disability and financial capability strategies, links to resources as well as a nice piece on disability focus tax incentives for employers and individuals with disabilities. Because as you know, this is December and we need to figure out what we’re doing with our taxes.

Rick Sizemore:  It’s that time of year again. And we’ll of course provide links to all of those resources in our show notes @vrworkforcestudio.com. The always informative and entertaining Cherie Takemoto thank you, and we will see you in 2021.

Cherie Takemoto:  Oh my goodness. Great to talk to you.

Rick Sizemore: Cherie celebrates her 3rd anniversary with the VR Workforce Team this month. She joined us in December 2017 with her first feature episode on the clearinghouse which is available in the library at VR Workforce Studio dot com.

Rick Sizemore:  Here’s Lynn Harris, director of the Wilson Workforce and Rehabilitation Center Foundation.

Lynn Harris:  The foundation is so pleased to bring you these exciting stories of how vocational rehabilitation is changing people’s lives by helping them gain the skills and credentials they need to be successful in business and industry. We thank all of our partners in podcasting who made this episode possible. ABLEnow, Bradford Staffing, the Council of State Administrators of Vocational Rehabilitation, the Community Foundation of the Central Blue Ridge, CVS Health, the Hershey company and United Bank. You can find out more by visiting us@wwrcf.org, or find our contact information in the show notes @vrworkforcestudio.com.

Rick Sizemore:  You can always find another exciting episode as we podcast the sparks that ignite vocational rehabilitation here at the VR Workforce Studio. Until next time, I’m Rick Sizemore.

Announcer:  The VR workforce studio podcast is owned and operated by the Wilson Workforce and Rehabilitation Center Foundation. The foundation publishes and distributes the VR Workforce studio and manages all sponsor arrangements. Audio content for the podcast is provided to the Wilson Workforce and Rehabilitation Center Foundation by the Virginia Department for Aging and Rehabilitative Services in exchange for promotional considerations.