My family doesn’t yell. Sometimes we argue, and we are good at sarcasm, but fights hardly ever get loud. When I got the option to have my student loans discharged for disability, I remember all of the yelling as my family and I fought over whether I should accept. Total and permanent student loan discharge sounds great, right? Well, it’s not that easy.
Student loans and their subsequent interest make financial independence a near Herculean task for millennials to achieve. But I’m not sure even Hercules could help a disabled person achieve financial independence.
While student debt is a problem across the board, for those living with a disability — like me, living with cerebral palsy — there are additional roadblocks. These can be of everything from finding a job to pay off the loans, to navigating the programs that are meant to help you but can actually make things worse, to just dealing with the stigma and emotions that come with taking advantage of the resources available to you. When I learned about loan discharge during graduate school around 2014, I had over $25,000 in public student loans. It seemed like an amazing opportunity when I got my Total and Permanent Disability Discharge (TPD) qualification to discharge all of them. On paper, a program promising to erase thousands of dollars of debt looks great. But nothing comes for free — even student loan discharge.
TPD is an application-only government program that allows people with “total and permanent” disabilities to get 80-100% of their public student loans forgiven. I’m glad it exists, and it’s helped many people, including me — but it also hurt me. Because of the program’s requirements, I had to decide whether I wanted to force myself into poverty for three years to relieve my student loan debt, or take on the debt with horrible odds that I would get the job needed to pay them off.
To qualify, you have to prove you are permanently disabled by government standards. Department of Education (DOE) Press Officer Alberto Betancourt defined “permanently disabled” in an emailed statement: “A borrower must be unable to engage in ‘substantial gainful activity’ due to a condition that can be expected to result in death, or that has lasted for a continuous period of not less than 60 months, or that can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 60 months,” he wrote. To do that, you have to prove you are a disabled veteran, that you’re receiving disability benefits, or have a doctor file a certification on your behalf.
In the meantime, a monitoring period to qualify for TPD requires the accepted individual to live below the poverty line for a 2-person household in their state for three years. So in 2019, residents of the 48 contiguous states have to make under $16,910 per year. It’s just $1,409 a month, or a measly $352 per week before taxes.
Three years in poverty is a long time.
So, what if I didn’t enroll in the program? Well, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the 2018 employment-population ratio for people with disabilities ages 16-64 is 30.4% compared to 74% for non-disabled people of the same age. In short, it’s statistically more than twice as hard for me to get a job as my abled peers. Without the loan discharge, it was very possible I could have more than $20,000 of debt with only my Social Security Disability Income (SSDI) to live off of for an unpredictable number of years.
Back to the yelling. I was having a hard time with the thought of literally pausing my career before it really started, but my parents saw it as a good opportunity. We just couldn’t agree. I felt I had no choice but to enroll in the program. But three years in poverty is a long time. I decided I needed to do it.
As the years went on, I felt more and more like the exact cliché of a disabled person that society believes. Useless, shameful, confined by my body and destined to serve no greater purpose than to make abled people feel “inspired” by the fact that I wake up in the morning without the luxury of walking unassisted.
Every single person with a disability has their own unique needs and abilities, and I knew I couldn’t be alone in the way I felt about trying to deal with my loans and finances. When I talked to other people with disabilities, I found a lot of them agreed that the government programs that are supposed to give us an equal playing field often have requirements that perpetuate the stigma of disability.
I let the monitoring period trap me into believing that I couldn’t look for a job.
It’s not just paperwork that makes this part of the process difficult. There’s also the fact that proving you are disabled is a strange experience. No one carries a card. “It's weird you have to justify your body and that you are ‘disabled.’ Even people who have identified as disabled for a long time, you begin to think, ‘How disabled am I?’” says Michael Whelan, who has multiple disabilities, including epilepsy and an autoimmune disorder. In an interview with Elite Daily, they say it took them four years to qualify for the program, due in part to how hard it was to find a doctor who would sign the paperwork. “I felt in [a kind of] limbo,” they say. “It made me more aware of my own bodily restrictions, but also questioning those restrictions at the same time. It's a mind trip.”
I let the monitoring period trap me into believing that I couldn’t look for a job. My depression and anxiety got worse for a year while I struggled to find a purpose. It’s already harder for me to find employment as a wheelchair user. Employment statistics aside, Equal Opportunity Employment is the law, but discrimination is hard to prove. That adds a layer of difficulty to the job application process to anyone with a visible physical disability, or who chooses to disclose their disability. It’s part of the reason why people with disabilities pursue higher education: We need the degrees so we are as qualified as possible if we get into the interview room.
[Not being able to pay back my loans] makes me feel like kind of a failure sometimes.
Like many disabled people, Valerie Novack, who works full-time in disability policy, struggles with the stigma associated with getting help from government programs like TPD loan forgiveness. “I feel like when I look at myself and when I see what other people see when they look at me, that I guess I’m not ‘disabled enough,’ even if on paper that is something I might qualify for — that it’s not there for me, that I’m not the kind of person that’s there for, I guess,” she says. Ironically, she can’t enroll in TPD or any other disability assistance program despite her chronic illness. Even though her job sometimes exacerbates her symptoms, the financial restrictions that programs like SSDI put on recipients (their bank accounts always have to be below a certain amount) would make it impossible for her to pay her loans and other expenses. “I didn’t take out thousands of dollars of debt to not be able to pay it back because I only work 20 hours a week,” she says.
Even those who have navigated the program don’t have all the answers. Cara Liebowitz, the development coordinator at National Council on Independent Living — a non-profit organization that focuses on helping people with disabilities design and achieve independence plans — got her job a few months after enrolling in the TPD program. She has cerebral palsy — same as me — and is a part-time wheelchair user, so I was eager to soak up all of her knowledge. But for complicated reasons involving Supplemental Security Income (SSI) garnishing her wages, her parents have agreed to pay back her loans for now. The financial independence it takes many people with disabilities so long to reach is not the delightful experience I was expecting to hear about.
“[Not being able to pay back my loans] makes me feel like kind of a failure sometimes because I’m like, ‘I have a full-time job, I should be paying these things,” Liebowitz says. “I shouldn’t need help to pay things.’” Liebowitz may have earned the elusive full-time job, but she’s not exactly financially independent at present.
That’s one of the strange loopholes of TPD: Only earned money is counted, meaning family income or other sources can boost your finances. “We monitor only for annual earnings from employment. There’s no limit on the amount of income a borrower may receive from non-employment sources,” Betancourt said in a statement to Elite Daily when asked to respond to criticism that the TPD program hinders the careers of people with disabilities. That’s good news for people whose families can support them, but less so for the rest of us.
Many disabled people know that these workarounds exist. “Often, people have to be creative and find ways to make money on the side, but also not break any laws in reporting said income. It’s the only way to really be financially independent,” says Whelan. It’s possible, but not easy. It never exactly occured to me while pursuing my master’s that it would be good for at least three years of side jobs.
Disability, poverty, benefits, student loans, and stigma exist in a sticky, interconnected web that one piece of writing can’t fully unravel. I’ve been on a form of Social Security since I was 18 years old in addition to benefiting from TPD loan forgiveness. It helped me to focus on my education and feel financially independent while in college. Afterward, money in my bank account was less appealing than finding help from someone who would see me as an individual; a funny, eloquent person capable of gainful employment that matches my goals.
The wheelchair and walker I use to get around because of my cerebral palsy aren’t a problem for me, they’re all I know. The problem arises when society and the government define what my abilities are without asking me. I’ll spend my life defying the stigma if I have to — but I haven’t found my way into a full-time job yet. Even after my loans have been forgiven, I have a long way to go before I reach financial independence. I feel “behind” my peers career-wise 100% of the time. But, I’m thankful not to have an extra $25,000 burden on top of that.