Marriage equality for people with disabilities

Story and slideshow by ANGIE BRADSHAW

Learn more about marriage equality for people with disabilities.

According to the Cornucopia of Disability Information, approximately 43 million Americans, or almost one out of five people, have a disability, making it the largest minority group in the U.S.  They are also among some of the poorest individuals. According to The World Bank, about 20 percent of the world’s poorest people have some kind of disability.

Employment is another challenge faced by people with disabilities. According to the United States Department of Labor, the 2013 unemployment rate for people with disabilities is 13.1 percent compared to 6.8 percent for people without a disability.

This could be the reason why so many individuals rely on assistance such as Social Security to help sustain a healthy living.

Among the many decisions faced by people with disabilities, marriage can be one of the most difficult.

Only 50 percent of individuals with a severe disability end up getting married, according to the Americans with Disabilities report.

The Utah state government assists single people with disabilities to help cover costs and provide accommodations where needed. But, if those individuals decide to get married, they could lose all their state-funded benefits or they could be substantially decreased. This leaves them to decide between marriage or continuing to receive benefits.

According to the Social Security Administration, the 2012 rates and limits are:

  • SSI will change from individual rate to couple rate.
  • If two people who receive Social Security Income (SSI) get married, they automatically receive 25 percent less.
  • Income limits: You can’t make more than $698 per month individually or $1,048 for couples to qualify for SSI.
  • Asset limits: You can’t have more than $2,000 individually or $3,000 as a couple to qualify. All of the following are counted as assets: cash, checking account, savings account, stock/bonds, and motor vehicles (except for one). If you exceed these amounts you do not qualify for SSI.

The difference in the benefits amounts between married and unmarried individuals is termed the “marriage penalty” by the National Council on Disability. Furthermore, the SSI can deem a couple married even if they are not legally wed. According to an article in Apostrophe magazine and the Social Security Administration, “The Social Security policy states that a man and a woman who live in the same household are married for SSI purposes if they hold themselves out as husband and wife to their community.”

Disability Rights North Carolina reported, “SSI beneficiaries are deterred from marrying because it will cause a reduction in crucial benefits that are already hardly enough for basic food, shelter and disability related expenses.” The document further noted, “For example, a national housing study published in 2007 found that the national average rent for a studio efficient apartment was more than a full SSI monthly benefit.”

With the cost of living on the rise, the amount of SSI benefits becomes more and more inadequate.

Drew Hanson, a senior at the University of Utah, has dealt firsthand with this. Hanson was diagnosed at age 4 with hearing loss. His parents made the decision to get him hearing aids, which he extremely disliked at first. “I would take them off and throw them across the room,” Hanson said. He has since gotten used to them and continues to use his hearing aids on a daily basis and uses lip reading as a back up.

At 24 years old he met Becky, who later became his wife. They waited two full years before finally deciding to get married. They had to weigh the options of having his benefits decrease and get married or hold off. Ultimately, they decided to get married.

Luckily, his wife got a job with the state and they now have benefits through her work..

They now have a 2-year-old daughter named Takira, which means, “treasure” in Japanese.

In several online articles many people believe the marriage penalty is an “anti-family” law and that something should be done. Citizens are advocating the marriage penalty and getting petitions signed, including a Facebook page called “Marriage Equality for People with Disabilities.” Their mission statement says, “Fighting for the right for people with disabilities to be married in all 50 states without financial, medical and economic penalties.”

There is also a website called thepetitionsite.com whose goal is to get 10,000 signatures to remove the marriage penalty against people with disabilities. So far, the petition has only 846 signatures.

Carly Fahey, also a senior at the University of Utah, has cerebral palsy. She said many people with disabilities wait a very long time before getting married or decide not to do it all because of the negative impact it could have on their lives.

“I’m confident that marriage will be wonderful,” Fahey said, “but figuring out the legal details will be an obstacle for sure. Something needs to be done.”

Randal Serr, director of Take Care Utah said in a phone interview that many people with disabilities are having difficulties with health insurance coverage and knowing where to start.

TCU provides assistance to those who are uninsurable because of their disability and pre-existing conditions. Employees work with individuals as well as 13 organizations in the Salt Lake Valley to navigate the health insurance process.

Serr said many health insurance companies are reluctant to insure individuals with disabilities because the state provides coverage through Medicaid and Medicare. Furthermore, he explained that under those programs there are many stipulations making it difficult to qualify and stay qualified.

For instance, the Social Security office decides who is considered disabled. People are asked a series of questions such as: are you working, is your condition severe and is your condition listed as a disabling one. From there, staff decide whether individuals fall under the disabled category.

“With Obamacare I think it will drastically change and be a positive direction for people with disabilities, on the application they don’t ask about pre-existing conditions,” Serr said. “In fact the only health-related question they ask, is if they use tobacco.”

As for marriage the fight continues in creating equality. Blogger Ashley Lasanta wrote, “To love and be loved in return is inherent to all human beings. To overlook or deny the rights of the disability community in their capacity to love and be loved undermines our ability to truly fulfill our commitment to better the lives of others.”

Utah nonprofits, Sorenson Unity Center roll with recession

Story and photo by DEREK SIDDOWAY

In the midst of numerous stock market plummets, layoffs and home foreclosures, many people have come to rely on soup kitchens, housing services, welfare entities and charities such as the Salvation Army and Deseret Industries for basic necessities.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Salt Lake City’s unemployment rate was at 7.4 percent in August 2011. Online real-estate marketing company RealtyTrac reported 560 housing foreclosures in the city throughout September 2011.

With no economic relief in sight, nonprofit organizations in Utah are working tirelessly to meet an increased demand for their service. A 2011 report prepared by the Community Foundation of Utah and Wells Fargo paints a vivid picture.

According to the report, “The New Normal, Changes to Utah’s Nonprofit Economy in the Great Recession”: “Utah nonprofits are, like the families they serve, stretched to the limit,” In addition, “As many as 14 percent have no cash on hand, and are living paycheck to paycheck, much like many of the people who come to them for assistance.”

The report, presented to the Utah State Legislature in February 2011, indicates demand is continuing to increase. In 2009 and 2010, nearly 80 percent of Utah nonprofits saw an increased need for service. These findings hint that up to one-third of Utah nonprofits could be out of business if there is no relief in the immediate future. When the report was published, 70 percent relied on deficit spending or were operating on less than three months of reserve funding.

“There is basically no reserve fund left in the state of Utah for nonprofits,” said Nancy Basinger, assistant director and service-learning manager of the Lowell Bennion Community Service Center. She studied nonprofit interactions with the government for her doctorate research at the University of Georgia in 2003 and is a member of the advisory board at the Nonprofit Academy for Excellence in Professional Education at the University of Utah.

Basinger, who has published various reports and research projects concerning the nonprofit sector in Utah, said nonprofits suffer more in a down economy when demand rises and funding bottoms out. She is concerned over how nonprofits will continue to meet their obligations and serve the community if they are unable to make payroll.

“This is the rainy day and now we’ve got to really figure out what to do,” Basinger said. “The pot is smaller and the (number of) people donating is smaller.”

The pot may be shrinking while demand has done anything but. In addition to providing for the physical needs of their patrons, nonprofits have experienced an increased need for social and mental programs as well.

“Behaviors supported by social services are more in need because of job loss, at-home abuse, substance abuse and no health insurance,” Basinger said.

The Sorenson Unity Center houses a variety of nonprofit organizations selected through its Programming Partnership.

Some nonprofits have responded to these diverse needs by joining forces. For example, the Sorenson Unity Center has found that this strategy benefits patrons in addition to decreasing operational costs. The operation came about in 2008 when the Sorenson Multicultural Center and Salt Lake County approached the city government with a plan to run the center for a reduced cost. Located at 900 W. 1383 South, the Sorenson Unity Center provides services for the Glendale and Poplar Grove neighborhoods.

“Sorenson Unity Center is a way to bring organizations under one roof so that it’s not so difficult to have a million nonprofit organizations competing for the same dollars,” Basinger said. “(Salt Lake City) has decided that it is in its interest as a supporter of society to support the work of those nonprofit organizations. They are working together and accomplishing twice and much with the same dollars.”

Angela Romero, Sorenson Unity Center’s program director, is responsible for the selection of nonprofit organizations through its Programming Partnership. She describes her job supervising the partnership as a way to provide opportunities for the community that would be otherwise unavailable. Nonprofits seeking to use the Sorenson Unity Center’s resources must show Romero the services they will provide to the community before they are approved.

“We want to be a resource through the programs we provide,” Romero said. “We hope individuals can take away something that will help them in dealing with the current economic environment.”

According to its annual report, the Sorenson Unity Center had a total of 8,334 participants in programming activities for the 2010-2011 fiscal year. Overall, the center and its affiliates served more than 18,000 patrons during the past fiscal year. These affiliates — Unity Computer Center, Computer Clubhouse, Donated Dental, Fitness Center, Child Care and general events and meetings — saw a total of 74,283 visitors during the same period.

However, the Sorenson Center and its affiliates receive financing through city funding. This steady source of revenue allows the center to maintain its facilities for the community’s use without wondering where the next check is coming from.

“I think what the recession has done is (create) a greater need for us to provide quality services for individuals that are in our community,” Romero said. “Hopefully more people are able to access the programs we have here.”