Why I Work

Why I Work

By Ben Spangenberg

As a child with Spina Bifida growing up in Northern California I had some amazing opportunities. I went to the best public schools, had friends both with and without disabilities, and even participated in children’s theater. I also had many of the complications that people with Spina Bifida have—eleven surgeries, occupational and physical therapy appointments and countless sick days.

Through all of the opportunities and challenges of childhood, I always expected to graduate high school, go to college and get a good job that would keep me self-sufficient.  By high school, I learned about the atrociously high unemployment rate for people with disabilities, and realized this would not be so easy. After high school, I attended the University of California at Berkeley, where I discovered Supplemental Security Income (SSI). SSI provided some income for housing and food and Medicaid provided the health insurance I needed. These benefits allowed me to concentrate on my studies and go through college without any debt. But, with the supports came a number of limits, including how much I could earn and save.  

I graduated with a BA in Political Science in 2005, and was ready to enter the workforce. Unfortunately, the workforce was not ready for me. While I did have a part-time job, I had no opportunities to start my career, even after applying for innumerable jobs. I heard a variety of reasons why I couldn’t be hired. All of them, in one way or another, had to do with my disability. I expected more of myself than to continue living on SSI all my life, but the prospect of finding that first job seemed hopeless! I didn’t give up. I made sure to apply to any job that fit my skillset and started thinking about employers that might be more likely to hire a person with a disability—advocacy organizations and government services. Meanwhile, my fascination with politics drew my job search out to Washington, DC. 

In January of 2007 I was offered a job with Monterey County, handling food stamp, TANF and Medicaid claims. Just as I started seeing beneficiaries, I was offered a job in the DC area working with a government contractor on the Ticket to Work program, (a federal program designed to help people with disabilities transition off benefits and into the workforce). Not only would I have a full time job, but the program was designed to help people that had been in a similar situation to me, transitioning into the workforce. 

I am now going on six years working on disability issues for a federal contractor. The job is the most rewarding experience I have ever had. When I go to work, I know that some (and hopefully many) people that I may never know will benefit from the work I do. My job has not only taught me about disability employment issues, but a whole host of other issues facing the disability community. 

In closing, I have three pieces of advice for young people reading this blog:

  • Participate in a broad range of afterschool activities.  The social interaction you get now will be invaluable for dealing with your peers in the future.
  • Learn to take direction from people other than your parents.  It will prepare you for taking direction from your boss when you grow up.
  • Finish your education by going to college.