Marriage Equality and The Disabled Community

Marriage Equality and The Disabled Community

On June 26, 2015, following the outcome of Obergefell, the White House lit up in rainbow colors to celebrate marriage equality.  It was an incredible day for those affected by the decision–a day full of happiness, marriage proposals, and hope. But not everyone could celebrate yet.

Disabled people who receive benefits can technically marry.  Marriage, though, comes with severe financial penalties.  Disabled people already have much higher expenses than the general population. This is because of the exorbitant cost of accessibility aids (such as walkers or augmentative and alternative communication devices) and high medical expenses. Additionally, many disabled people must live in an area with access to public transportation and ADA compliant living. These much needed accommodations are often located in areas with higher rent prices. This extra need is hardly acknowledged in federal disability benefits. 

A disabled Supplemental Security Income (SSI) recipient who has been declared unable to work, for example, can only have $2,000 in savings. Even worse, SSI recipients receive an average of only $569 per month to live on. For reference, average rent for a one bedroom apartment in Dallas is $1,692 per month.  Similarly, a Disabled Adult Child (DAC) may receive benefits based on their parent’s work history, which, for families who had to de-prioritize work to care for their disabled child, can result in a low benefit amount.  As a result, many DACs and SSI recipients struggle to afford basic necessities and medical care.

The MEDAA

When an SSI recipient or DAC gets married, they are subject to penalties.  SSI recipients, when they marry another SSI recipient, lose a portion of their benefit amount.  That loss can be devastating for an already low-income couple.  SSI recipients who marry an able bodied adult that does not receive SSI can expect to lose benefits proportionally to their new spouse’s income.  This loss can trap the disabled person in a relationship where they become financially dependent on their spouse.  Also, the expectation that the able bodied spouse will be the provider is an outdated and unrealistic concept in a world where many families require two incomes.  For DACs, marriage often means a total loss of benefits, including access to Medicare and Medicaid.  This loss can be life-threatening, as many DACs rely on Medicare and Medicaid coverage to survive.  
Fortunately, the disabled community and their abled partners are working to change this.  Lori Long, a Californian DAC who wishes to marry her fiancé, helped push the Marriage Equality for Disabled Adults Act. This will end the worst of the marriage penalties for DACs, and change the definition of marriage for SSI recipients. This is only the first step in the fight to end marriage penalties for disabled adults. With enough effort and support from both disabled people and the American public at large, there is hope that someday everyone might be able to celebrate true marriage equality.

Written by Cecil Mattson, 2L of Texas A&M School of Law

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