SDI Productions/Getty Images
"Crip Camp"

Imagining a more accessible financial world and workplace

Ellen Rolfes Jun 11, 2024
Heard on:
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This month, we’re watching the Oscar-nominated 2020 documentary “Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution,” which tells the story of a summer camp for teens that inspired a disability rights movement.

People with disabilities want the same financial freedom and independence others have. But for decades, many Americans believed that having a disability meant one could no longer contribute to the economy, much less attain financial freedom. 

“The consensus narrative around disability was once that if you had a disability, you know, maybe you’d go on benefits, but you’d kind of leave the workforce. And your financial life is over,” said Thomas Foley, executive director of the National Disability Institute, a nonprofit that researches and advocates policies that improve economic outcomes for people with disabilities. 

“I think there’s still some of that out there, but more and more people are recognizing that people with disabilities can work and financially participate.”

“Econ Extra Credit” spoke with Foley about economic gains disabled people have made in recent years, and how companies can attract and retain workers with disabilities. Here are edited excerpts of our conversation.

Econ Extra Credit: The concept of “financial freedom” can be pretty subjective. So what does financial freedom look like for someone with a disability? 

Thomas Foley: I think the definition for folks with disabilities is going to sort of track with the definition that everybody else has. People with disabilities want to be able to work, earn, save, invest. They want to have access to an affordable bank account, have access to credit, have access to savings, homeownership, be able to save for retirement. 

EEC: What limits their ability to do these things? What challenges do people with disabilities encounter? 

Foley: So, a couple of years ago, we did a little bit of research and looked at the extra costs of living with a disability and found that in today’s dollars, someone with a disability needs almost $18,000 more [a year] to live at the same level as someone without a disability. 

That $18,000 could cover the costs of a wheelchair-accessible van or making one’s home more accessible, possibly living closer to work so that transportation is less of an issue. So one is obviously, you know, increased expense of having that disability. So that’s one big piece. 

In addition to that, often with onset of a disability, you’re going to have more limited opportunities to employment. The workforce participation rate for folks with disabilities is significantly lower than folks without disabilities — though that’s been changing a lot recently.

And then disability benefits, especially benefits like Supplemental Security Income, have very restrictive asset limits — if you have a disability and you’re on SSI, you can’t save more than $2,000 in liquid assets. And so, obviously that is a huge discouragement not only to save, but also to earn. A lot of people who need SSI-linked Medicaid often forgo employment opportunities because it might put them over the asset limit.

EEC: Do you have a sense of what percentage of people with disabilities would like to work, but fall into this camp? 

Foley: You know, we don’t have hard numbers on that. One of the things that’s a little hard around disability is that there isn’t always great data on disability because people are afraid to ask the question.

But can I tell you just about every person I know with a disability can and wants to work? Asset and earning limits, transportation and even basic bias often get in the way. For decades, people with disabilities have been saying, “Hey, I can do this job. I have the skills, I have the training, I have the interest. But you know, I need to be able to do it remotely.” And for decades, they were told no, right? And then, within a couple of weeks of the pandemic, all of us figured out how to work remotely. And so one of the things that we saw — and it’s really been [borne] out by the data too — is that more and more people with disabilities were returning to the workforce during the pandemic at higher rates than their nondisabled peers. 

People with disabilities have been wanting to work, eager to work, capable of work. But it wasn’t until, you know, this huge change in the way we approached work that the opportunities presented themselves and we saw people going back to work, again at much higher rates.

EEC: What other challenges exist that make financial independence and financial planning harder?

Foley: There is something known as the marriage penalty around SSI. [Editor’s note: That’s when two married people with disabilities have greater restrictions on their assets than they would if they had stayed single. We told one couple’s story a few years ago on “This Is Uncomfortable.”] SSI is also supposed to keep people above the poverty level, and it never has. So, I do think there’s a lot that could be done around policies like the SSI Restoration Act. 

Technology is a huge enabling piece of financial participation for many people with disabilities. For people without disabilities, technology makes things easier. For people with disabilities, sometimes technology makes things possible. But not all digital experiences are the same for folks with disabilities. So paying attention to that kind of accessibility, I think, is really important. Most of the big financial institutions do a pretty good job of that. But, you know, some, some of the smaller ones don’t always have the resources or the awareness.

I also think it is really important to have access to data. You know, we’re here in Washington, D.C., where, if you want to change something, you need data. If the data has not been collected, it makes it a lot more difficult. 

EEC: What kind of data would be most useful to start collecting?

Foley: I think anytime we would ask for data, we would include disability, right? That’s the first piece. On specific areas, I would love to see data on home mortgages. I’d love to see more data around small-business loans and financing. Any organization that is working to improve financial and economic outcomes for anybody would include disability as one of the measures they track. Because, here’s the thing: If you’re trying to serve low- or moderate-income people, you are automatically serving people with disabilities. So let’s make sure we can measure that.

EEC: How could workplaces change their culture to attract and retain employees with disabilities? 

Foley: Obviously, one piece is, you know, hiring people with disabilities and making sure they have access to employee resource groups around disability and opportunities to further their careers internally at the organization. If you’re an employer that has a great reputation of working with people with disabilities, that’ll get around in the community. 

But in addition to that, employers that want to work with folks with disabilities need to be involved with the community, so working with disability-centric organizations, reaching out to organizations that help people with disabilities find work. For example, NDI has an employment program called the American Dream Employment Network. We have 66 partners across the country reaching out to organizations that help people with disabilities find work. It’s a great way to basically market your organization to people with disabilities.  

EEC: It’s interesting that you bring up employee resource groups. We have them at our company. It can be challenging to get discussion started. How do workplaces overcome this kind of discomfort? 

Foley: That’s something that I hear a lot. There are a couple of ways around that. One is, any ERG is something you can opt in to, you can choose to be part of. You can also have an ERG that’s open to people with disabilities, family members of people with disabilities and allies for disability. 

I think normalizing disability, whether through an ERG or just by being open around it, goes a long way. But there is still a stigma out there, and sometimes in the beginning, it’s a little bit harder. 

I’m totally blind and have a ridiculously cute golden retriever guide dog, and so, you know, I walk into a room and it’s kind of hard to miss that I’m blind. When I moved to Washington, D.C., about three years ago, my building has, I think, 100 units in it. The first couple of weeks I was here, people in my building were a little uncomfortable. All of a sudden, there’s a blind guy in the building, right? But after about two weeks, it’d be, “Oh, that’s Tom and his dog, they’ve been here forever.” At first, it can be a little uncomfortable, frankly, but over time it just started to become part of the wallpaper. I think more exposure leads to more acceptance, sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly. 

EEC: Going beyond remote work accommodations, what kinds of policies make a difference when it comes to making employees with disabilities feel welcome and supported? 

Foley: So at NDI, we do two things that I think are really important. One is we let the person with a disability tell us what their accommodation needs are. Let me give you a great example. Every time I get on an airplane, they hand me a Braille copy of emergency procedures. I don’t read any Braille. People sometimes make assumptions about what you need, but the person in charge of deciding what they need should be the person with a disability. 

Secondly, when someone needs an accommodation, it doesn’t come from [a specific department’s] budget. It comes from an overall budget because we don’t want a hiring decision to adversely affect a specific part of the organization in case a person needs an accommodation. That being said, the average accommodation in the U.S. costs less than $200. But we still have a central pool for making accommodation requests so that it doesn’t fall on one department or one budget. And I think that’s something that could be easily adopted by other organizations.

How to watch “Crip Camp”

“Crip Camp” is available to stream on Netflix with a subscription and on YouTube for free.

If you have any questions or comments about the film, don’t be shy! Just reply to this email or write us at

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