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The Advocate Oak Blog

Author: Denise Lugo Fowler

Did you know that November is National Assistive Technology (AT) Awareness Month?

By Naomi Leibowitz, AT Specialist   

In honor of National Assistive Technology Awareness Month, we’d like to point out the importance of assistive technology and how it impacts everyone’s lives, not just people with disabilities.

What is Assistive Technology?

Assistive technology, or AT for short, is defined as “any item, piece of equipment, or product system, whether acquired commercially off the shelf, modified, or customized, that is used to increase, maintain, or improve functional capabilities of a person with a disability.”

AT is frequently misunderstood, and many people don’t know what classifies as AT. Many folks think AT is just an expensive device like a wheelchair but in reality, anything can be AT – it just depends on how it’s utilized. Simply speaking – AT is any tool used to simplify someone’s life. For example, if you are someone who has a mobility impairment and unable to get out of bed, you might ask Alexa to switch on the lights.  In that situation, Alexa would become AT. Another example is if you need a few directions on how to go to a grocery store you might like to use GPS to assist with navigation.  In that situation, GPS becomes AT. If you have a hearing impairment and turn on captions on your television, then the TV becomes AT.  It is not AT if you only use these devices because you like and enjoy them. Any device may become AT if it removes a barrier for you.

How did AT come about?

Did you know that a lot of today’s mainstream technology was created for a person with a disability in mind? Take voice recognition, for example. Originally designed for people who couldn’t use a standard keyboard, it’s now being used by people to text on their phones. Another good example are ramps. Who hasn’t used a ramp instead of stairs when carrying groceries or pushing a stroller? The list goes on and on.

Another interesting tidbit of information.  Did you know that AT dates all the way back to the 1800’s.  The Audiophone Bone Conduction Amplifier was the earliest type of hearing aid that was not a cone in the ear. Instead, hearing was amplified through the conduction of sound through bone. Check out the timeline for AT. https://www.timetoast.com/timelines/history-of-assistive-technology

Do you want to learn more about AT?

Here is a short video to learn more about what AT is “Assistive Technology: Simple Said

If you still have questions about AT and want to find out how Disability Rights NJ can help, visit our website at at4nj.org

Unmasking the CARES Act: Fast Facts about COVID-19 Unemployment and Social Security Benefits

 By Charles Ouslander, Senior Staff Attorney / PABSS Coordinator           

For people with disabilities, the Covid 19 pandemic has been a difficult and stressful time. Aside from health and safety concerns, there has been confusion around how public benefits have been affected by the crisis. People are also unclear about what new programs have been created to help support those who have lost a job or had their social security benefits interrupted.

Typically, unemployment insurance benefits are available in each state to those people who lose their employment. For example, the person who’s been laid off from their position, quit for good reason or was fired for any reason, other than serious misconduct or reckless behavior, is entitled to receive unemployment benefits. Each state has its own rules, and most states require persons seeking unemployment benefits to search for full-time work. In New Jersey, if your claim for unemployment is based on the loss of full-time employment, you must be looking for full-time employment. Of course, if you find part-time employment, you must report those wages to the Division of Unemployment Insurance, and you may still be eligible for partial benefits.

Due to the staggering job losses during the pandemic, Congress established three new unemployment programs that increased unemployment benefits in both coverage and amount. The programs apply to specific groups of people and have different criteria for eligibility. These programs were part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act:

• Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) – This program provided unemployment benefits for workers, including those who are employed part-time.  People seeking PUA must certify that: 1) they are unemployed either full-time or part-time, or 2) unable and unavailable to work because of a circumstance or situation related to the Covid 19 pandemic. Many in the disability community work part-time due to their disability and/or receipt of social security benefits (i.e., substantial gainful activity or resource limits). This program broadens eligibility, to cover such workers. PUA officially  ended on September 5, 2021, as Congress did not reauthorize the law.    

• Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (FPUC) – This program increased the amount of benefits for state unemployment insurance programs and the PUA by an additional $600 per week. The additional amount was available from the date the CARES Act was enacted, March 27, 2020, through July 26, 2020. It was subsequently extended to March 31, 2021. The American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 continued the extension of additional unemployment benefits, but reduced the amount from $600 to $300 per week. The additional unemployment benefit of $600 expired back on July  31, 2020. The authorization for the reduction in the amount of additional unemployment benefits to $300 started on December 26, 2020. This program officially ended on September 5, 2021, as Congress did not reauthorize the law.    

• Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC) – This federal program provided state unemployment benefits through a series of extensions which increased benefit coverage from an initial 13 weeks up to 53 weeks. This program officially ended on September 5, 2021, as Congress did not reauthorize the law.   

Unemployment Insurance and Its Impact on Social Security Benefits

How do these pandemic unemployment programs affect social security benefits for people who are disabled and receive both unemployment and social security benefits? The good news is that they don’t!

Supplemental Security Income

The Social Security Administration (SSA) has provided an emergency message that receiving these unemployment benefits will not cause loss of social security benefits, such as Supplemental Security Income (SSI).[1]

For those receiving SSI benefits, all of the above described unemployment benefits through the CARES Act and subsequent extensions, will be characterized as “disaster assistance” and not income or resources.  Ordinarily, unemployment benefits are considered “unearned income” and these benefits could cause an SSI recipient to possess too much in income and/or exceed the resource limit that SSI beneficiaries are allowed to possess each month (i.e., $2,000 for individuals and $3,000 for couples).[2]  The good news here is that both regular and pandemic unemployment benefits will not be counted as either income or resources, during the pandemic period. 

Social Security Disability Insurance

For those persons receiving SSDI benefits, the CARES Act unemployment benefits, and their extensions, will not be counted as income, for purposes of determining substantial gainful activity (SGA) when receiving continued SSDI benefits.[3] Unemployment income counts as unearned income, not as earned income so the substantial gainful activity (SGA) income limit does not apply.  Unemployment benefits are considered “unearned income” since no actual work is being performed to obtain this income. Unearned income is all income that is not earned such as Social Security benefits, pensions, state disability payments, unemployment benefits, interest income, dividends and cash from friends and relatives. Under the SSDI program, unlike SSI beneficiaries, SSDI beneficiaries are limited only in the monthly amount of “earned income” they may acquire through employment (i.e., SGA). [4]

The bottom line is that receiving enhanced or continued unemployment benefits during the Covid 19 pandemic should not cause an interruption of your SSI or SSDI benefits. Of course, it is important to keep records and copies of any documents from both the SSA and your state unemployment office. This way you can prove what benefits you have received, how much and for how long, if there is ever a dispute down the road. 

[1]   https://secure.ssa.gov/apps10/reference.nsf/links/07232021123646PM (Effect of COVID-19-Related Financial Assistance on SSI Income and Resources), Program Operations Manual System (POMS), SI 00830.230 Unemployment Insurance Benefits. 

[2]  See, https://secure.ssa.gov/apps10/reference.nsf/links/07232021123646PM  and https://secure.ssa.gov/apps10/reference.nsf/links/07232021011154PM (Special Processing Instructions for Applying Supplemental Security Income (SSI) Income and Resource Exclusions to Pandemic-related Disaster Assistance).   

[3]  https://secure.ssa.gov/poms.nsf/lnx/0500830230 , Program Operations Manual System (POMS), SI 00830.230 Unemployment Insurance Benefits. 

[4]   SI 00830.230 Unemployment Insurance Benefits, Program Operations Manual System (POMS),