The Ticket to Work Program: Skill-Building and Financial Resources for People With HIV

Matt Ebert
Matt Ebert
Selfie by Matt Ebert

People with HIV/AIDS have remarkably higher rates of unemployment, and unemployment leads to higher levels of stress, isolation, poor health and even disease. To make our community stronger we need to find a model for working while disabled. We need jobs that accommodate us, as well as a work culture that encourages and keeps disabled people in the game.

By incentivizing participants with resources, skills training and cash "bonuses," the Ticket to Work (TTW) program helps you achieve employment and education goals. If you're disabled and need a computer, textbooks, gas, money or work clothes, this is a program to help you obtain them. DisABLEd Workers, a TTW administrator, offers a panoply of resources and information, including skills testing and free software.

It's also a good idea to know Social Security's rules for working on SSDI:

When you first return to work, you enter what's called your trial work period (TWP). During this time, you are allowed to work and earn as much money as you can, and your benefits will not be affected. In 2016, the only months that count toward your TWP will be months where you earn over $810. The length of your TWP is however long it takes you to accumulate nine of those months.

After your TWP, the first month you earn $1130 in gross wages starts your three-month grace period. During your grace period, you are able to earn over $1130 and be guaranteed your SSDI check for that month and two following months. After your grace period, if you continue to earn over $1130 a month, your SSDI checks will be suspended.

After you've completed your TWP, the extended period of eligibility (EPE) begins. EPE runs for an additional thirty-six months after your TWP. During your EPE, if you lose your SSDI check because you are earning $1130 or more a month, any month that your earnings drop below $1130 (as long as you've been reporting your wages to the Social Security Administration) you will receive your regular SSDI check the following month. EPE is essentially a three-year financial safety net.

The cash incentives TTW pays -- $500 every three months, more if you qualify -- are considered non-countable income. Social Security views TTW bonuses as non-taxable employment support. The program is fairly generous, so if you're eligible, all future financial aid is non-taxable too: None of it counts toward your monthly income. You can't spend it on rent or food, but you can spend it on a wide array of goods and services you'll need to get started at school or in the working world.

If you're receiving Medicare, you'll be protected for ninety-three months --nearly eight years of additional medical benefits -- after your TWP ends. If you're receiving Medicaid, most states allow somewhere close to $30,000 before discontinuing benefits, but each state has specific guidelines. Check the links below to determine what your state allows.

Despite having HIV, I continue to work because I enjoy it. Work gives me a sense of purpose, a place to go every day, a destination in a world that often feels rudderless and anchorless. Work also creates community, a balm for the twin engines of poor health: loneliness and isolation.

There's real benefit to a clear understanding of SSDI and the programs available to help get you off welfare. One benefit is that knowledge equals power, and where your benefits are concerned, understanding how they work mitigates the fear you may have of losing them. When you're ready to restart the process of work or school, you need encouragement, not shame. Ticket to Work helps you achieve these goals.

I found the following links helpful while weighing a return to school and employment this year:

  • On the resources page for DisABLED Workers, LLC, you'll find free computer basics, a resume builder and free software to help create spreadsheets and documents. There are work-at-home links and links to help you find work -- such as jobs listings through the U.S. Labor Department and links to the PASS plan if you're interested in startups. PASS is like a grant for the disabled.

    There's also an incredible amount of resources and links here for school, including federal student aid. Additionally, you'll find information on home ownership, rental resources and assistive technology links. Check it out; there is something here for everyone.

  • This link has more info on the PASS plan -- because you're never too old to learn. And being disabled, it's time to learn you're entitled to lots of financial aid to help you earn a degree or skills training for that new job.

  • The Workforce Investment Act was established in 1998. Here's an excellent resource for learning what it is and how to apply for grants.

  • Here's a free, online computer course. You can instantly up your employment game by improving your computer skills.

  • TypeRacer is a good way to test your typing skills. And it's free!

  • You can never be too prepared, and this link helps you get ready for that first interview.

  • This link is a great resource for student aid. It lists nearly every grant available to the disabled and explains what each is and how to apply for it.

  • An alphabetical list of scholarships available to disabled students is available here. It never hurts to know where the money is -- especially free funds to help you reach your goals.

  • Do you know about the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act? Here's a primer. The more you know, the better off you'll be when it comes time to step out.

  • Transitions can be tough. Need help paying bills? Here are resources for your area.

  • Everyone needs help writing an essay. Here's a free resource from the University of Michigan. I found it really useful. It's good to remember that many colleges and universities, especially those with strong writing programs, offer some form of free tips and tricks for writing entrance essays. It's a great way to improve your composition skills for free.

  • This link will help you understand Medicaid. Find your state and determine how much you can earn before benefits expire. There's an excellent list of threshold amounts for SSDI beneficiaries.

  • This link will provide listings for the work incentives available to SSDI beneficiaries, as well as information about the types of disability insurance you may have.

  • If you're on disability, and you're ready to get started, call Social Security (1-800-772-1213) and request your Benefits Planning Query Report (BPQR--SS Form #2459). You'll need this form to get a better picture of your work and benefits history.

What I've linked to here is just a tip of the iceberg. So many resources are out there to help you return to work or school that I couldn't possible provide them all. What this tells me is that we are not alone in the woods anymore. The first thing you must do is put aside all your bias and fears, reach down deep and ask yourself, "What then must I do?" If the answer is "get up and out of the house, go to work or school," you are not alone anymore. More importantly, the resources available to you have never been better. Good luck, and good health and happiness improving your station in life.