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.”