Transitions: The Benefits of Working

A young woman reading a braille book in a room with shelves of books.
A young woman reading a braille book with headphones around her neck.

Editor’s Note: Blind from birth, Karen Shrawder shares the importance of work experience opportunities for all youth, especially transition-age youth with visual impairments.  Thanks to high-quality educational and Expanded Core Curriculum (ECC) experiences, Karen is now sharing her passion for employment with others as a Work Incentives Practitioner with the California Department of Rehabilitation (DOR) The Benefits of Working.

I was born blind. I went to public schools, except for three weeks one summer when I attended a state school for the blind. While in grade school, I had an amazing itinerant teacher of the visually impaired. She traveled from school to school, teaching all of the blind and low vision kids in the district. She also planned optional monthly outings for us, her students. These left lasting and treasured memories that we still reminisce about today. We learned how to roller skate, knockdown both plastic and real bowling pins, swim faster and better than our sighted peers, work with clay, invent tactile games to play with sighted friends and family, act in short plays, and even ride horses! We also learned things we would need to know later in life when we became independent and employed, including responding appropriately when we fail, relating to others both with and without disabilities, keeping our things organized so we can find them, working as a team with people we know and don’t know, using a hands-on approach to both teach and learn from others, and so much more!

Then I moved to a new city for junior high and high school. During these six years, I was the only blind kid in the entire school district. This is when I began learning how to advocate for myself by ordering my own textbooks, working with my teachers to come up with appropriate accommodations according to my individual needs, teaching my friends how to include me in their activities, learning to be creative while handling “millions” of different challenges, and so much more! I was a leader in the Spanish club, Youth for Christ group, International Students Organization, etc. I even spent hours in the darkroom developing film for the high school yearbook.

There was always one area, though, where I lagged behind, I mean way behind! During these years, all of my friends, and many of my classmates, got jobs and began earning extra money—all except me. I was told that no employer would consider giving a teenager who is blind a job of any kind. No one even encouraged me to apply anywhere. I was given no hope of becoming employed until I became an “adult,” and that is exactly what happened. I never made a cent from a job until I was in graduate school, at the age of 22. The first job I was ever paid to do was to teach college freshmen writing courses while completing my Master’s degree, and even this wasn’t a “real” job. I only earned a $500 stipend per month; not much to live on; right? Other than a couple of small tutoring jobs, that was it, until I finally got my first real job as a high school teacher at the age of 24.

That’s my story. What is yours? As a student in junior high, high school, or even college, have you found a “real” job that pays “real” hourly wages? I hope so! For those of you who haven’t, what obstacles are standing in your way

Let’s discuss the benefits of working.

There are many, including learning new skills, meeting people, gaining job experience, and more, but what about earning money? Isn’t that pretty close to top priority? So what happens when you get a job and start earning money, and what if you, like many of your friends, get Supplemental Security Income (SSI) or another disability benefit? Will that money disappear when you start working? Does just thinking about that make you and your parents decide it’s not worth the risk? Aren’t we all most fearful of what we don’t know? Well, what if we told you that you could keep your full SSI checks while earning up to $1,930 per month for several months each year while you’re a student? Would you want to see the proof? I would! There is a work incentive called the Student Earned Income Exclusion (SEIE) that you should learn about. Please join me on November 10, when I will show you “the proof,” using examples, sharing resources, and educating you on how working impacts your SSI and/or SSDI along with the work incentives that Social Security offers you so you can work, become independent, and reach your goals. It truly is possible to become employed and to be in control of what happens to your SSI/SSDI.

Watch the webinar – The Benefits of Working.