Editor’s Note: Forty-three-year-old Michele Leahy owns M. Leahy & Associates, and she is a disability life planner. She helps people with disabilities navigate adult systems when they’re transitioning out of high school. Many young adults and parents of young adults aren’t familiar with all the state, federal and foundations’ assistance that they can receive simply by applying. Michele can walk you through the political red tape you may encounter to get both the financial and planning help that you need.
How Michele Helps People with Financial Planning
I help people with disabilities in getting the social security benefits available to them as well as state services. Many people with disabilities aren’t aware of many of the programs that have been developed on local, state and federal levels to help them. However, because of my training, I know about these programs. I know how individuals and organizations can apply for financial help as well as other programs that may be beneficial to them.
Another thing I help clients with is integrating federal programs with community programs to maximize the benefits for people with disabilities, how to plan their lives for the long term, and how to help their parents or caregivers plan for the financial well-being of a person with a disability after their loved ones are no longer available as a caregiver.
I wish I had more clients with physical disabilities that I could help, but it seems as though most of the clients that I provide information for involve adults with autism or brain disabilities. Usually, the parents of these individuals are the ones who find and contact me.
I helped one of my clients – we’ll call him Jim – get his social security benefits when he turned 18.
I also helped him get work incentives such as the Student Earned Income Exclusion that’s available within the Social Security Administration, that allows people who are receiving Supplemental Security Income (SSI) to be able to work and not lose a portion of their cash benefits.
So, Jim got a job while he was in school. Then when he turned 21, he didn’t have to lose any of his benefits from the extra work and pay he was receiving.
When Jim turned 21, he worked three different jobs, and he switched from SSI to SSDI (Social Security Disability Insurance), which is an entitlement benefit. This gave him supplemental income. I also helped Jim get some extended state services such as job coaching and support through vocational rehabilitation.
I also solved some concerns for his parents who believed Jim would live with them until he passed away, or they passed away.
I helped them set up a special needs trust for Jim, develop a will and get power of attorney for their son to set up a special needs trust. The special needs trust – a supplemental trust – helps people with disabilities who cannot have resources in their own names. The parents can save up money and put it into that trust, because many people with disabilities can’t earn enough income to live at the same quality of life independently as they have with their parents.
Often parents fund that trust with life insurance. Because monies received from life insurance aren’t taxable in a special needs trust, this type of trust is a third party trust. Then when the parents pass away, the money from their life insurance goes into the special needs trust for the person with the disability. We also help them determine trustees to administer the trust and make sure the person with the disability is taken care of always.
I help parents and caregivers develop a care management and person-centered plan too for people with disabilities, so the parents don’t continue being caregivers. This allows them to be more of parents rather than being strictly caregivers.
I’m often asked, “How did you learn to navigate through this red tape, the services and the funding that many people with disabilities or caregivers often don’t get?” I worked for a nonprofit in government services, and I was trained in a program that was instituted in 1999 called the Ticket to Work Program.
I was trained specifically in social security benefits, and I’m considered a community work incentive coordinator. As a community partner for Social Security, I’ve been trained in all the programs available for people with disabilities on federal, state and community levels.
My Personal Interest in People with Disabilities
I was born with spina bifida and myasthenia gravis – a mild form of muscular dystrophy. When I was 23, I was hit by a car, and five years ago I had a below-the-knee amputation. I was able to walk until I was 12, but then my scoliosis got really bad. I had rods put in my back to stabilize my spine.
When I asked my doctor, “Are those rods ever going coming out of my back?” I remember very clearly what the doctor said. “Only if you get hit by a tow truck.” Well when I was 23 years old, I actually got hit by a tow truck. Unbelievable!
While recovering, one of the rods broke in my back, but I didn’t know that until 4 months later, when the rod completely separated. I was able to move the rod around with a refrigerator door magnet that’s used to hold important information or pictures on a refrigerator door.
So, I had to go to the hospital to get the two parts of the rod removed. Now I only have one rod in my back stabilizing my spine. Needless to say, I understand the physical struggle to having a disability very well.
A Wild Turn of Events Changed Michele’s Life
Prior to working with people with disabilities, I moved from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to New York City.
I’d always dreamed of being an intern in television and became the first intern in a wheelchair to be hired at MTV.
Back when they had music videos in 1995, I was a production intern. But after I had the tow truck accident, I convalesced at my parent’s home in Philadelphia, saved my money and moved back to New York.
After my time at MTV, one of the jobs I had while I was in New York was doing word processing at one of the towers in the World Trade Center. On September 1, 2011, I moved from New York to take a position in Washington D.C., only 11 days before the two World Trade Centers were attacked and destroyed. My life path was woven through 9/11.
In Washington D.C., I took a job in disability services. Prior to taking that job, I wrote a column for a magazine, Disabled Dealer. The column was about a woman with disabilities living in New York City.
When I was in Washington D.C., I worked for a disability lobbyist. That’s how I began to learn about the problems that many people with disabilities had after receiving their benefits from the federal, regional and local governmental agencies.
I’ve experienced disabilities in many different ways. But I’m more than just a person with disabilities. I’m a woman who enjoys many different things, and I didn’t want to get pigeonholed only as a person who fights for disability legislation.
Michele Says People with Disabilities Need Jobs Too
I believe that people with disabilities are entitled to benefits, but I also think people who receive services should be accountable and look for ways to find work. They should contribute as much to society as they can.
Many people born with disabilities are only exposed to other children with disabilities. In my experience, I’ve noticed that many times, people born with disabilities seem to have overprotective parents who coddle them and don’t have any expectations of what that child can become.
But my parents didn’t drink that Kool-Aid. They sought out different activities for me to be exposed to, including adults with disabilities. I became the first 8-year-old with a disability to ride on the Schuylkill River. When I was younger, I went to different disability camps. I saw a 25-year-old man driving a car with hand controls, so I decided I could do that one day too. My parents tried to provide positive role models in the disability community for me through people who were successful in life and were working and living on their own.
When I went to New York, I was living as an independent person who has Spina Bifida. I became friends with other adults with disabilities in New York City, and I met folks with spinal cord injuries. The people up there taught me their philosophy, which wasn’t, “I have a disability, so I deserve everything I can get. I’m entitled to it because of my disability.”
Their philosophy was, “Okay, I’m disabled, now what do I have to do to get back to work?” I’ve adopted that philosophy for myself and many of the people I try to help.
They also believed, “Okay, I became disabled, but I still want to do all the things I once did before I became disabled. I just need to figure out how to do those things.” I learned that as a disabled person, many of us can be independent, we can work, and we can play – just maybe not the same way we did before we became disabled.
When I was a little girl, my dream and my goal was to go to New York, live independently and have a job. I began to do all the things required to reach that goal.
It may be that sometimes people with disabilities don’t set high enough goals for themselves to achieve great dreams. I hope to change that.
If they set those goals to become independent, get a job, and become whatever they want to be, then through my business, I try to find the services and training that can help them reach those kinds of goals.
Michele Attributes Her Success to Intentionally Seeking Out Opportunities
I’m often asked, “Where did you learn how to help people with disabilities?” I started going to the Abilities Expos. I met many highly successful people with disabilities at the Expos. I became friends with several people who knew so much about disability services.
One of those people was in charge of all the disability services in Pennsylvania. Also, I met a man with a disability who started his own wheelchair company.
I also met Marty Ball, a longtime wheelchair athlete who works for a wheelchair company selling wheelchairs and developing ways to make wheelchairs more efficient for wheelchair athletes and people in everyday wheelchairs. From 2001 – 2004, I worked many different jobs. I couldn’t figure out what I wanted to grow up to be. Then Marty Ball dared me to enter Ms. Wheelchair USA for Pennsylvania. In 2004, I became Ms. Wheelchair Pennsylvania. [See how Marty has influenced other wheelchair users here.]
I became a member of the United Spinal Association, back when it was previously the Eastern Paralyzed Veterans Association. In 2004, I was the first civilian to become part of the executive board, and I stayed on that board for eight years.
I became a support coordinator in Philadelphia at a local center for independent living, where I learned more about federal government and state services for people with disabilities. Next, I worked some for the Epilepsy Foundation. Then I was recruited to head up a Pew Charitable Trusts grant – a job coaching agency by the name of AHEDD. I was in charge of that $250,000 grant. That’s where I learned about social security work incentives. While I was there, we were able to get the grants increased to $750,000.
My boss at that company encouraged me to start my own business. Because my education was so broad and reached across so many types of disabilities and the services and funding available for people with such a wide range of disabilities, he thought I should start my own company. I finished my master’s degree, while I was working with AHEED. I got my life and health license.
Although I’m not a financial planner, I’m licensed to sell health and life insurance and fixed products and I love helping others with this skillset.
Remember that not only do I work for a number of agencies that help people with disabilities get additional services and monies, because I’m a person with a disability, I learned how to navigate through all the different agencies to get the services and monies available for me. Because of my training, I can help people in Pennsylvania and people with disabilities all over the United States to get services available to them — and I look forward to helping as many people as I can!
Have a question for Michele?
To learn more about how Michele Leahy can assist you, visit her webpage at www.leahylifeplan.com.
About the Author: John E. Phillips
For the last 12 years, John E. Phillips of Vestavia, Alabama, has been a professional blogger for major companies, corporations and tourism associations throughout the nation. During his 24 years as Outdoor Editor for “The Birmingham Post-Herald” newspaper, he published more than 7,000 newspaper columns and sold more than 100,000 of his photos to newspapers, magazines and internet sites. He also hosted a radio show that was syndicated at 27 radio stations; created, wrote and sold a syndicated newspaper column that ran in 38 newspapers for more than a decade; and wrote and sold more than 30 books. Learn more at www.johninthewild.com.