Disability is broadly defined as a “disadvantage or handicap, especially one imposed by the law.” Social Security Disability Advocates (SSDA) includes disabilities pertaining to the speech, musculoskeletal, respiratory and cardiovascular systems as well as many others. But disabilities can be mental as well as physical. Invisible disabilities such as autism, mental illness and developmental disabilities can also prevent members of the disabled community from working. People with disabilities may receive financial assistance from the government if they are unable to work.
People with disabilities who receive benefits from the government, however, are limited in their ability to choose who they marry due to financial limitations governmental policy has placed on these marriages. If a person with disabilities marries a person without disabilities, they are at risk of losing their financial assistance. Dominick Evans, a filmmaker and advocate for disability rights, argues that “while people with disabilities can technically get married, we really don’t have a choice because there are so many barriers placed in front of us that keep us from marrying the people we love.”
This is a social justice issue we must address — both by drawing attention and awareness to it and by holding leaders accountable for amending this policy. The policy unjustly forces individuals with disabilities to choose between their own fulfillment and their financial survival. People with disabilities are already facing significant obstacles due to lack of accommodation within our society, and the lack of marriage equality only furthers their disadvantages financially.
People with disabilities often receive either Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) or Supplemental Security Income (SSI), depending on their situation. SSDI pays benefits to the person and their family if they have paid their Social Security taxes and have been employed. SSI pays benefits based on financial need; the government often gives it to low-income people who cannot work due to their disability. Most people with disabilities receive SSI benefits, but they risk losing their benefits because of their spouse’s income.
People with disabilities face an unemployment rate of over 80 percent due to both the limitations of their disabilities and workplace discrimination, so they must rely on the government to provide their basic needs. Individuals living with disabilities often rely on welfare and food stamps to help pay for their expenses — but in order to stay on those programs, they must paradoxically continue to live in poverty. One in four people with disabilities already live in poverty, according to a 2010 Census, and this system further perpetuates inequity by making it difficult for them to escape the poverty trap.
When a person with disabilities marries a person without disabilities, the government considers their spouse’s income to be their income as well — meaning that they can significantly reduce their monthly benefits. If two people who both receive SSI benefits marry each other, they lose 25 percent of their income and resources. The Social Security Administration unfairly expects the spouses of people with disabilities to take their partners on as their financial burden. This can add unnecessary stress to their relationships and also contribute to welfare stigma. If both people have disabilities and receive government benefits, their relationship and finances are both threatened even more.
Discussion on this topic often fails to consider the intersectional identities of people with disabilities. People of color and members of the LGBTQIA+ community already face discrimination within our society, and for individuals with disabilities within those groups, the marriage equality issue only compounds their struggle. Americans won the right to same-sex marriage in 2015, for example, but LGBTQIA+ individuals with disabilities still don’t have that right.
The lack of marriage rights for people with disabilities is part of a larger system of classism. The Advocate argues that “because of a culture of respectability politics and antipathy to ‘welfare,’ the movement for marriage equality for people with disabilities still faces an uphill climb, but these issues are necessary and part of a bigger conversation about health care and benefits that affects everyone.” While people may be tempted to turn away from this topic because it doesn’t affect them, it is part of a larger socio-economic conversation that affects the whole U.S. population.
A lack of justice for one group prevents justice for all. This issue is especially pertinent to people with disabilities, who are frequently overlooked and stereotyped in media. Organizations like Marriage Equality for People With Disabilities engage in protests and activism. They are working to assert the right of financially equitable marriage to their legislators. People who do not have disabilities must find ways to authentically support these movements in ways that do not turn disability stories into inspiration porn or diminish their struggles. If we are truly to be a more equitable nation — one that looks not to speak over people with disabilities, but instead provide them with the government resources they need — we must address this as a government policy that interferes with their quality of life and freedom.
Maddie Solomon is an undeclared first year. She can be reached at email@example.com.