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Disability and Finances

Mary Ellen sat down with Liz Yoder, a financial advisor and Director of Financial Planning at Planning Across the Spectrum, to talk about her work in disability and finance! Liz was an assistant at L’Arche Greater Washington, DC and remains a close friend of the community. The conversation has been cut for length and edited for clarity. 

Mary Ellen: Can you tell me about how you got connected with L’Arche originally?

Liz: I got introduced to L’Arche in a high school theology class. I met L’Arche Greater Washington DC when I was a freshman in college and I visited our community on spring break with a group from Loyola College. I went my freshman year, and then I led the group again in my junior year. 

I joined the community after school. It was kind of obvious to me in my freshman year that was my plan. And it was just kind of like yep, I know these people, I like these people, and I’m really falling in love with these people.

Mary Ellen: How did you start on the career paths you’re on now?

Liz: I have always been interested in advocacy. So while I was at L’Arche I would go to different conferences. I went to the Disability Policy Seminar which just happened last week (March 2022). I went to the Arc conferences and the NDSS meetings that they would have annually. I would sit and listen to the questions and the comments and the different policies that were being discussed. 

I found that really interesting, that not only was it that I didn’t know very much about the financial world of disability when I was sitting in the room, but I also knew that families didn’t understand the financial side of disability either. A lot of the questions that people had were either so specific that they couldn’t be answered, or the right person just wasn’t there to answer the question. There aren’t enough people who understand social security, disability, work, employment, and Medicaid, and how they all fit together. And so it was really in those times of being in those rooms, learning about the law, learning about what pressures people are under to be underemployed, that I felt like there aren’t enough people doing this work. And I have the capability to learn it. So I’m going to do that work. 

It was pretty clear to me that I still wanted to be in this community and disability advocacy and financial planning was an easy way to do that as a career and have a very specific understanding of what families go through, and to be filling a need that I just don’t see filled. Even now there’s just not enough of us doing this work.

Mary Ellen: What are some of the main challenges in your field?

Liz: The company I work with has a focus on neurodiversity. So we are working with individuals who identify as neurodivergent themselves, or families who are planning for an individual who has high support needs. So, when I’m meeting with families, I’m typically meeting with parents. And one challenge that I find is that they are coming to me with 30 to 50 years of belief systems that aren’t true. That their child isn’t eligible for certain benefits, that they have to be on one program versus another, that they can’t work, that they’re not able to do certain things because they’ve been told that year after year after year. 

We’re coming to these families and saying, let’s think about that again. And trying to readdress the actual realities, which are that we can’t rely on government support and the systems that are in place for everybody to be independently successful. But there are ways to address what each individual brings to their community. That leads to more independence. We’re constantly encouraging families to think very differently than the way that they’ve been thinking whether that’s financial or, again, independence speaking. 

Every one of my working families comes to me and jokes about the experience of, “well, I’ll be working forever”. Like you really don’t have to and I know that’s a joke, but it’s a really deep-seated fear of yours. Let’s look at the data. Let’s look at the numbers and show you that’s not actually necessary. You can retire. Your child will have support and they will have money that’s coming to them every month and they will be able to support themselves with these structures in place. Financial planning is looking at the reality of what’s happening in a household, what’s going on, what are the goals, what are the intentions, and finding a path where it can be made a reality.

Mary Ellen: Out of curiosity, where did these parents get these different beliefs that you’re working to dismantle? 

Liz: There are some belief systems around Social Security not being accessible to people. And because of the definition of Social Security, because of the way people have to apply, which is basically saying from a doctor’s standpoint the language that is used is “this person can’t work”. That’s a medical professional that might have worked with this individual from their childhood through adulthood, who is constantly reminding them that there are boundaries to them being successful at work. It’s not an easy thing to get over or to move beyond even if there are elements of work that someone can be successful in. If they’re working independently, if they were working at home, if they were working on something that they truly cared about them. It’s not that they’re not capable of working. 

Mary Ellen: So if you could change one thing about your field, what would it be?

Liz: I really think it’s just more of us. There need to be more people who understand this and care enough to help people who can pay and help people who can’t. There just aren’t enough of us. So we work with people across the country. And we’re constantly being told, “how come I never knew there was anybody like you”. Well, it’s because there aren’t very many people like us who can actually talk about retirement planning and college savings planning. And oh, by the way, benefits and insurance and everything else. It’s a problem that people can’t find the answers. Every time we talk to people they have questions about what they can and can’t do, and what they can and can’t apply for. They’ve been told the wrong answer so many times. It’s really hard to be the one telling them what they’re able to do. But it shouldn’t just be us clarifying things and being able to direct them to the next step. There should be others who know what’s going on.

Liz and Hazel on a double decker bus in 2010. Riding a double decker bus was one of the MAP goals Hazel had designed that she and Liz got to do together when Liz was an assistant at Highland.

Mary Ellen: If other people want to advocate around disability rights and finances what’s something they could do?

Liz: The SSI Savings Penalty Elimination Act has been introduced on both sides of Congress, this is the act that encourages the federal government to increase the eligibility for Social Security benefits. SSI is a program that requires people to have minimal assets and income. The amount has not changed since the 1980s. So if you think about the inflation that we’ve experienced in this past year, it’s not allowing anyone to have any more to their name. People can’t have more than $2,000. The Act would increase that limit so people can have up to $10,000 in savings. 

If people wanted to write to their Congresspeople to say that they supported this, it would enable the representatives to understand that this is important to people. We talk about Social Security as being for people who are disabled. If we think about that, one in four individuals in their lifetimes is disabled. And so it’s not actually for other people. It’s for all of us. We all know somebody who has a disability. 

Mary Ellen: What is something from L’Arche that you carry into your work? 

Liz: I carry a lot. I actually just sent a blog over to a professional blog talking about the nature of goal setting. So in L’Arche the experience for me had been that our core members were given this wonderful celebration every year to review their annual goals and I was jealous. It was such a good experience, to be surrounded by 10 to 20 people that they care about in their daily lives. People naming their gifts, naming their interests, and the things that they care about. And saying is there something that we haven’t been doing that you want to be doing? Is there something that we have been doing that you don’t care about anymore? And let’s realign what your goals are so that they’re fitting into your life. That’s what financial planning is. And so I use that in financial planning to try and get at, what do you care about? What do you want to do with your time, resources, and energy and stop doing the things you don’t care about? Using that as a framework for an annual check-in!

Liz and Charles having fun together at a L’Arche gathering! Photo by Brian Taylor.

Banner photo at top of blog: Liz with other L’Arche community members at an Advocacy Day at the Capitol Building.

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