Jobs, savings accounts encouraged for Mississippians with disabilities

TUPELO – Earlier this week, two dozen businesses were at the Cadence Bank Conference Center for a job fair, looking to interview and hire new workers.

But this wasn't just any job fair. It was billed as the EmployAbiity Job Fair, hosted by the Mississippi Department of Rehabilitation Services. The department – technically a labor agency in conjunction with other state agencies – is in place to help Mississippians with disabilities find jobs and careers.

Josh Woodward, MDRS director of business development, said typical three such job fair are held each year – one in Southaven, one in Jackson and one on the Gulf Coast. But he said the agency realized that not many people were driving from other cities and towns to attend the job fairs, so instead, it decided to bring the job fairs to them instead.

"We have 10 different districts, and Tupelo is the main town in what's called District 2, so we were trying to bring local businesses to local clients rather than expect them to travel," he said.

Woodward said MDRS can essentially provide a job tryout for employers looking to employ disabled Mississippians but who might have qualms about how that might work.

"We cover the cost of the worker's comp and the salary for a period of time for that person to not only learn from the employer but also see if it's a good fit between the person and the career," he said. "If it's not a good fit, then we won't push that. But the internship allows us to see that."

The benefit to a business participating in the internship is that it allows them to see the potential employee for who they are, rather than a disability.

"We're trying to break down the barriers to how society views a disability, and this internship program does that without having to put a lot of skin in the game initially to overcome those anxieties they might have," Woodward said.

He said there have been multiple success stories statewide matching employers with employees via the internship program. What MDRS also has learned is that the retention rate of businesses hiring workers with disabilities is much higher.

"They're more grateful for the employment because a lot of times they've struggled with finding employment in the past," he said. "We do encourage employers to try the internship programs because it does ensure the fit is good before the business buys completely into hiring that person. It allows us to see that person work while they're still under our guidance so that if there are any hiccups we can smooth that out before permanent employment happens and they exit our services."

The internships vary in length depending on the business and the job, but could last up to 180 hours.

At the smaller community job fairs like the one in Tupelo last week, Woodward said the goal is to have 20-25 employers and 100-200 job seekers. Those numbers were met, but the most important number can be quite small.

"If we find one person a job, our job is done," he said. "It's much more efficient for us to do it this way than for my staff to door knock for 3 to 4 months trying to find the same jobs. Do we want to find a pile of jobs here? Absolutely. But from a cost-benefit scenario, if we land 1-2 jobs, then it was smart money; it was money well spent."


When a person with a disability get a job, putting away money is important, but it hasn't always been easy. The ABLE (Achieving a Better Life Balance) savings accounts makes it so.

"If you're on disability, there are limitations on how much you can make before you're kicked out and you can't receive those benefits anymore," Woodward said. "You can make very little money before it affects those benefits. Now can put money away for a rainy day or retirement without affecting your benefits."

ABLE is a savings account for individuals with disabilities that will not affect public benefits and it can be used for daily transactions and/or long-term savings and it may provide tax advantages. Before the ABLE program, those receiving disability benefits were not allowed by government restrictions to save over $2,000 in their name.

Many individuals with disabilities and their families depend on public benefits (such as SSI, SNAP and Medicaid). To be eligible for public benefits, you must not have savings of more than $2,000 (SSI) or $4,000 (Medicaid).

According to MDRS, the effort for ABLE accounts originated with a group of parents of children with disabilities who recognized the unfairness of not being able to save funds in their child’s name for fear of losing essential benefits that allow their child to live independently in the community. An ABLE account is easier and less expensive than establishing a special needs trust and is easier to maintain. A qualified ABLE account holder may also be the beneficiary of a special needs trust.

Income earned in the account is not taxed if spent on qualified disability-related expenses. Contributions can be made to an account by anyone and may qualify for a state tax deduction. The account can be used for daily transactions, as well as for long-term savings.

However, not all individuals with disabilities will be eligible to open an ABLE account. The ABLE Act limits eligibility to individuals with a disability (as defined by SSA) which began before turning 26 years of age. If you meet this age criteria and are also already receiving benefits under SSI and/or SSDI, you are automatically eligible to establish an ABLE account. If you are not a recipient of SSI and/or SSDI, but still meet the age of onset disability requirement, you could still be eligible to open an ABLE account if you meet Social Security’s definition and criteria regarding significant functional limitations and receive a letter of certification from a licensed physician. 

The maximum yearly limit for contributions to an ABLE account is the annual gift tax exemption amount ($16,000 in 2022). An individual who is working may contribute an additional amount not exceeding their income or the federal poverty level, whichever is less. The maximum balance for an ABLE account is $235,000. Once an account goes over $100,000, SSI benefits will be suspended. Other benefits are not affected by any account total.

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