United Ways, Disability Network partner for Disability Equity Challenge

Nearly half of Michigan residents with disabilities are struggling financially, according to a United Way report.

To help people better understand the challenges faced by those with disabilities, the United Ways in Michigan on Aug. 1 launched the 21-Day Disability Equity Challenge. The challenge is intended to help raise awareness of the financial and other disparities highlighted in the report.

In 2019, while 19% of residents with disabilities were deemed in poverty, 28% were categorized as ALICE (Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed). ALICE households earn more than the federal poverty level but less than what it costs to live and work in the modern economy. Combined, 48% of Michigan residents living with disabilities were below the ALICE threshold, with income that doesn’t meet the basic costs of housing, child care, health care, transportation, and a smartphone plan.

“On the 32nd anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), we see that residents with physical, mental, or emotional conditions who are struggling financially are not only being undercounted but underserved,” says United For ALICE National Director Stephanie Hoopes, Ph.D. “There is still work to do, as having a disability puts individuals at substantial risk for financial instability, more than many other factors. Daily, and even more so during the COVID-19 pandemic, these individuals face barriers to accessing quality education, secure jobs, and critical support.”  

Through Aug. 29, 14 United Ways across Michigan are partnering with local Centers for Independent Living to promote the challenge’s efforts.

On the Lakeshore, local United Ways, Disability Network West Michigan, Disability Network Lakeshore, The Arc Muskegon, The Arc of Allegan County, and Disability Advocates are promoting the challenge. People may sign up at

Those living in other counties may sign up at hwmuw.org/disability-challenge.

Daily informative messages

Participants will receive one email each weekday that features videos, articles, podcasts, and discussion questions that are intended to shed light on issues your neighbors, loved ones, and relatives with disabilities wish you knew more about.

Topics include ableism (discrimination against people with disabilities), the history of the disability justice movement, intersectionality (discrimination due to an individual’s social identity), language, accessibility, systemic inequalities for people with disabilities, allyship (those who advocate for the inclusion of a marginalized group of people), and disability pride. A discussion guide may be downloaded as well.

Additional subjects include what respectful disability language entails, job accommodations, income inequality, subminimum wage, education and marriage inequities, and disability pride.

The challenge was launched in conjunction with the latest installment of the ALICE in Focus Research Series from the Michigan Association of United Ways and research partner United For ALICE. This report, which was released July 26 on the 32nd anniversary of the passage of the ADA, will use data and analysis to spotlight the realities of people living with disabilities in Michigan.

Assistance programs out of date

The ALICE in Focus: People With Disabilities report and interactive tools reveal that during the pandemic, people with disabilities with income below the ALICE threshold were four times more likely to be anxious than those without disabilities. 

The new research also shows that outdated federal guidelines prevent the majority of residents with disabilities who are living in financial hardship from accessing critical public assistance. According to the new report, a staggering 82% of residents with disabilities below the ALICE threshold did not receive Supplemental Security Income. The program requires that recipients have income below the poverty level, be unable to work, have a “severe” impairment, and have less than $2,000 in their bank accounts, $3,000 if they are a married couple. 

“Income eligibility requirements for SSI haven’t been updated in nearly four decades, which is one of the big reasons why more than 530,000 residents were shut out of receiving a much-needed financial lifeline,” says United Way of Lakeshore CEO Christine Robere. “By using data that takes into account the true cost of living, we can establish critical supports that help those who need it the most.”

Inequities across the board

Other findings from the report show the following disparities:
  • Black and Hispanic residents with disabilities — 65% and 54% respectively — disproportionately experienced financial hardship compared to white people with disabilities, at 43%. 
  • Females with disabilities struggled more to afford the basics — 51% — compared to 44% of males with disabilities. 
  • Michigan saw 59% of residents with disabilities below the ALICE threshold spend 35% or more of their income on their mortgage, plus utilities, taxes and insurance.
  • Whether working full or part-time, people with disabilities were more likely to be living paycheck to paycheck than those without disabilities: 
    • 21% of full-time workers with disabilities were below the ALICE threshold compared to 16% of full-time workers without disabilities. 
    • 53% of part-time workers with disabilities were below the ALICE threshold compared to 36% of part-time workers without disabilities. 
The report also includes these key findings:
  • Among people ages 25 and over with only a high school diploma or GED, 49% of those with disabilities were below the ALICE threshold, compared to 31% of those without disabilities. This trend continues through all levels of higher education. 
  • Nearly 20% of people in Michigan with disabilities under age 65 living below the ALICE threshold were not enrolled in Medicaid or Medicare. 
  • More than 330,000 people with disabilities in Michigan lived alone in 2019. 
  • Even in households with two working adults, 33% of children with disabilities were below the ALICE threshold. With only one out of two parents working, this rate increased to 63%. Drastically, children with a disability who lived in a single-parent home or with a guardian were even more likely to be below the threshold at 84%. 
United Way's Robere also pointed out that rates of hardship are likely even higher than was counted, because data is not available for individuals living in nursing homes, correctional facilities, and other group settings.

A look at Michigan

In the United States, 27% of disabled adults live below the poverty line, compared to 12% of non-disabled adults, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2015 Community Survey.

West Michigan counties fare slightly better:
  • In Kalamazoo County, 19.5% of disabled adults have incomes at or below the poverty line, compared to 12% overall.
  • In Kent County, a little more than 18% of disabled adults live at or below the poverty line, compared to 11% overall.
  • In Ottawa County, those figures are 13% and 6.7% respectively.
  • In Muskegon County, 19.5% of disabled adults are at or below the poverty line, compared with 12.3% overall.
The 21-Day Disability Equity Challenge will take a deep dive into what people with disabilities are capable of accomplishing and spotlight the barriers that still obstruct their progress.

“One of the biggest barriers, I think, is an attitudinal barrier,” says Brad Hastings, advocacy and certified Americans with Disabilities Act coordinator for Disability Network West Michigan. “People are unsure how to respectfully interact with people with disabilities. It’s not a topic people may have engaged with on a very meaningful and in-depth level.”

Inequities the public doesn’t see

The challenge brings to light concerns and issues that are unknown to the public, says Dominique Bunker, community engagement director for United Way of the Lakeshore.
Dominique Bunker
“This challenge brings to light a marginalized group of people that we overlook,” says Bunker. “Individuals living with disabilities come in all shapes and sizes and have different disabilities. We tend to lump everyone together and to think that it’s a very small group of people.”

COVID-19 compounded the problems and inequities that people with disabilities face when our day-to-day lives came to a grinding halt with the shutdowns. 

The challenge is an avenue for essential conversations.

"There is a lot of stigma that comes with words centered around disability. We want to dive deeper into that so we are all speaking the same language and really start understanding each other," Bunker says. "There's still even a language gap difference today. Is handicapped still acceptable? (It is not.) Do we say folks living with disabilities? Or do we say are they a disabled person? When is the appropriate time to even acknowledge the disability? All of this comes up and is discussed in an open format during the challenge." 

Ending the stigma

The Disability Equity Challenge is modeled after the 21-Day Race Equity Challenge developed by diversity experts Dr. Eddie Moore Jr., Debby Irving, and Dr. Marguerite Penick and adapted for the United Way network by United Way of Washtenaw County. The specific content in the 21-Day Disability Equity Challenge was developed by Disability Network Southwest Michigan.

The nation has come a long way since Franklin Roosevelt was president. He forbade photographers to snap pictures of him while he was in his wheelchair. Thanks in part to the ADA, concerns that people with disabilities are “less than” others have dissipated. Even so, there is a need for people with disabilities to be assured their full potential is reached.

“There’s a huge stigma around having a disability because of preconceived notions on what someone with a disability can or can’t do, and that really varies from person to person,” Hastings says. “One of the major messages we try to promote is not to make assumptions about what people can and cannot do. They may need an accommodation to perform the functions of their job, but that does not mean they are unable to do it.”

Andrea Goodell contributed to this report.

This article is a part of the year-long series Disability Inclusion exploring the state of West Michigan’s growing disability community. The series is made possible through a partnership with Centers for Independent Living organizations across West Michigan.
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