Act 3 - Ticket to Work

How to get off Disability without committing fraud.

Act 3 - Ticket to Work
There's activity beneath the surface. Watercolor on paper ripped from my sketchbook.

I knew that, eventually, I would want to start creating and engaging the world again.

Since I'm getting government benefits, I suspected that there was a process required to do so without accidentally committing disability fraud or inadvertently cancelling my benefits when I still need them.

My suspicions proved accurate, and, like any government agency, they documented the requirements at length.  Social Security - The Red Book

Thankfully, they also created a program that helps people navigate this process called Ticket to Work. Social Security Administration - Ticket to Work

The idea behind this program is to help those on Disability start or return to work while providing a safety net if it turns out that you can't work or (as with many cancer patients) your health declines again.

There are benefits for participating in this program:

  • A Case Manager to help you navigate the program and all of the resources available for your state. These case managers are called "ticket holders" and are sub-contractors with the Social Security Administration. Many of these sub-contractors are state and local agencies.
  • An individualized career plan. For those of us looking to change careers, just having someone ELSE create the plan and provide accountability is amazing.
  • No medical reviews for as long as you are participating and "making progress" in the plan.  You and the case manager work together to define "progress."
  • Expedited Disability approval for 7 years if you successfully leave Disability and have a heath setback.

A whole new world has just opened up.  

So much of my Act 2 has been me stumbling along a path and grabbing opportunities that presented themselves.  

The main guiding principle during Act 2 was "maximize marketability." The goal was to not find myself in a cardboard box under the bridge.

Admittedly, one of my goals for Act 3 is to not bankrupt myself or my family. That said, the MAIN goal as I shape Act 3 is to enjoy how I spend my remaining time and not harming anyone or anything in the process.

Time to leave the oasis and get moving.

Ticket to Work - How it Works.  

Step 1 - Call the number on the website because "guessing" wasn't helping and I think they want you to call them anyway.

A lovely woman on the other end of the line answered all of my questions and sent me a list of potential "ticket holders" to contact. She also gave me a very clear description of how things were going to work, along with a reminder that this journey is going to move at its own pace, not mine.  Kinda like being on one of those moving walkways, but you are sitting in a chair.

This journey is going to teach me patience.

Self-reminder - it is in my best interest to move as slowly as possible.

True for the cancer journey. True for Act 3.

Step 2 - Contact potential ticket holders.

The "ticket holders" have caseloads and may have changed their emphasis towards supporting their current cases.  

Each of these "ticket holders" support various regions. Some try to work nationally. Others are location-specific.

I wound up with SkillSource - Virginia Career Works Northern Region. - a non-profit sub-contractor that works closely with the State of Virginia and the counties around Northern Virginia.

Thus far, I'm finding that having a resource that is integrated with surrounding counties as well as the state has been incredibly helpful.

My local government was another option; but even if they are not my primary ticket holder, I still have access to their resources. (Thank you, wise allocation of my tax dollars.)

Step 3 - Follow the process.

Throughout this process, SkillSource is going to help with any necessary paperwork, point me towards resources, and help support me both during this job search and while I am working.  

I've essentially picked up a long-term career coach with expertise around the uncertainties of disability and chronic illness.

We put together a plan for re-education and benefits counseling, had that approved by the Social Security office, and we're now following the plan.  

My goal is to change careers while getting off Disability.  

I'm not up for another round of IT implementations and the 50-60 hour days, high-stress meetings, and partially functional tools attached to them.

Since I now have access to an array of career training resources and some time to re-skill, I might as well take advantage.  

Besides, if I manage to beat the odds and make it to standard retirement age, I still have 15 years.  That's more than enough time to build another career.  

And even if I only make it 5 or less, I'd rather have spent that time doing something fun and meaningful.

Ticket to Work is designed to provide a net for those of us with disabilities.  

There is an understanding that if you are on Disability in the first place, your health is likely fragile. I may not be able to maintain a job or a business long-term or with any sort of consistency. I'm grateful for that net.

Another part of the disability net - job accommodations.

My case manager, in one of our early conversations, encouraged me to think about the job accommodations I might need.

I'm mobile and don't have any visible issues beyond the port in my chest - so I haven't thought about asking for disability accommodation beyond time to address necessary medical appointments and tests.

The American Disabilities Act accommodates for both visible and non-visible disabilities. Simple things such as the ability to work from home, adjusted hours, and time blocks are all possible accommodations.

Admittedly, I've managed to create my own accommodations during my career without necessarily thinking of it that way or formally asking my employer.  

Still, the fact that we can ask for these changes and are well within our rights to do so helps.

That said, I still need to choose my next step wisely.

It's on me to choose a work environment that will minimize the amount of accommodation I'll need in the first place.

As I write this, I'm in the process of narrowing down the type of job I wish to pursue and how I want to go about filling in my experience gaps.

I'll talk about that process in a later post.