ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WROC) — The U.S. is erasing billions of dollars in student loan debt for individuals with severe disabilities.
The Biden administration announced last week it will automatically erase debt for more than 300,000 Americans with severe disabilities that leave them unable to earn significant incomes.
Melanie Hecker has autism and she says she was excited about the news. She knows the burdens people with disabilities can face when they have a lot of student debt and little income.
“I am absolutely thrilled,” Hecker said. “This is going to go so much further in making sure people with disabilities can escape poverty, live the most productive lives possible, and hopefully stay off of public assistance.”
Zach Garafalo, the Manager of Government Affairs at the Center for Disability Rights in Rochester, says this is a step in the right direction because college is expensive.
“Oftentimes people with disabilities come from, you know, first generation, low income families, so they’re not going in with assets,” Garafalo said. “Having this student debt burden is a tremendous barrier, because essentially you’re starting off really in the negative.”
The federal government already has a loan relief program, but it’s faced a lot of criticism. Usually, the application process requires a lot of paperwork and documentation, which can keep people from applying.
“A lot of people with cognitive or mental health disabilities can have a real hard time understanding this paperwork, which can impede their ability to get the help they need,” Hecker said. “And this paperwork very often is not available in the plain language formats needed for a lot of people with cognitive disabilities to understand.”
According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, 98% of cases in which loans were restored to borrowers with disabilities in the past were because they didn’t submit paperwork.
Starting in September, the process of getting relief will be changing. The Education Department will be erasing debt for thousands of Americans identified in Social Security Records as permanantely disabled, making the process easier for many.
“Lessening the paperwork burden is going to, first of all, make it easier for us to understand what we need to do in the first place, but also conserve the emotional energy that we need to do this paperwork, along with every other task we need to complete over the day,” Hecker said.
Hecker also said focusing on the debt one has can keep them from searching for jobs and wanting to find employment.
“If student loan debt is forgiven, then that means that people with disabilities have more resources to spend in finding some of the training or experience programs, or some of the resources that can help us be more attractive to employers, and hopefully find full time permanent employment,” she said.
While this is a step in the right direction, advocates say there is still more work to be done.
“Unfortunately, it does not go far enough. Student debt is the single greatest barrier to economic mobility. And while this is a great first step, student debt disproportionately affects people of color, first generation college students, people with disabilities, but it’s often difficult to get the designation of being permanently disabled,” Garafalo said. “There are other systemic fixes that need to be made to the system. For instance, expanding the cap, the savings cap, of how much assets people with significant disabilities, who are on these programs, and rightfully so, should be able to have in savings, everybody needs a rainy day fund.”
Hecker also said there needs to be more opportunities for people with disabilities to get jobs, and employers need to recognize all the wonderful attributes they can bring to the table.
“We are loyal, we are driven, we want to work, and it takes a lot more effort and determination for us to succeed in educational and professional systems that are not built for us,” Hecker said. “But our sheer determination and willpower causes us to stick through it. And that determination and willpower will serve us well in any job position we have,” she said.