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New student loan forgiveness measures must include the disabled

A disability-sensitive debt relief program would benefit anyone facing hiring biases, unemployment, or changes in health status

Jennifer White-Johnson

This July, the Biden administration announced it would forgive $39 billion in student loan debt for 800,000 borrowers who dealt with payment errors.

That such an egregious error occurred illustrates the abusiveness of a system that forces millions of borrowers to decide between repayment or rent. Student debt relief is especially critical for disabled people, one of the most marginalized groups in our society. Although they have comparable student debt levels, they have lower rates of continuous full-time employment, which reduces their ability to repay their loans. Disabled people comprise over 25% of the U.S. population, yet they are rarely an explicit part of loan forgiveness discussions. As a disabled health equity researcher who has struggled to manage my own student loans, I know the current student loan system is discriminatory and further perpetuates ableism. Disabled borrowers can benefit greatly from student debt relief.

Despite the endless calls for more STEM-educated professionals, even STEM Ph.D.s with disabilities are employed at half the rate of their able-bodied peers.

Disabled borrowers face overwhelming challenges when attempting to repay student loans. They spend more of their income on medical care, mobility equipment and caregiving. A 2020 report estimated that a household with a disabled adult requires 28% more income to maintain a comparable standard of living as a fully-abled household. Systemic barriers and beliefs, or ableism, impedes the participation of disabled people in the workforce. Implicit bias and overt discrimination lead to fewer interviews and more resistance to meeting accessibility and accommodation standards. Unsurprisingly, they are less likely to be employed than able-bodied people. In fact, the unemployment rate is two and a half times as high for disabled people with a bachelor’s degree or higher. Despite the endless calls for more STEM-educated professionals, even STEM Ph.D.s with disabilities are employed at half the rate of their able-bodied peers. And when disabled people manage to secure employment, they are twice as likely to land in part-time positions that do not meet their qualifications or financial needs.

The U.S. Department of Education has only one debt forgiveness program for disabled borrowers: Total and Permanent Disability Discharge (TPD). Although the Biden administration reduced bureaucratic hurdles for disability-based discharge in 2019, the TPD is far from a saving grace. To qualify, a borrower must be deemed severely and permanently disabled by the Veterans Administration, Social Security Administration or a qualified medical professional. Basically, the disabled borrower must be determined unable to engage in remunerative cognitive or physical activities and unlikely to be employable in the future. The limited funds provided by Social Security Disability Insurance, Supplemental Security Insurance or VA disability benefits are often the only sources of income for those who are approved for disability discharge.

Few meet this standard, and more importantly, few of them wish to be classified in such a way. TPD usually precludes the borrower from future gainful employment and consigns them to a life of poverty. Other types of borrower relief programs, like Public Service Loan Forgiveness and IDRs, are heavily dependent on steady employment, which for reasons previously mentioned limits participation by disabled borrowers who are otherwise capable and ready to work.

Marginalized disabled people are even worse off because of higher unemployment rates and fewer financial resources. Much of this disadvantage can be attributed to ableism. Structural ableism and stigma pathologize the existence of disabled people and mark them as incapable of contributing to society because of their perceived deficiencies. They restrict K-12 opportunities, reduce access to accommodations in postsecondary education and inculcate the idea that a disabled applicant is more likely to be a burdensome employee. Millions desperately want to work and repay their loans, and can do so if given the appropriate tools and assistance.

We need more creative student debt relief programs to promote greater equity and inclusion. This will benefit not only the disabled, but our economy and society at large. They will have more employment flexibility if they are not as concerned about falling behind or defaulting on their loans. Many people seek purpose from their careers, and disabled people are no different. Worrying less about oppressive loan payments will empower them to seek positions that suit their health status, life stage and career interests.

Implementing a disability-sensitive debt relief program would be more equitable than the current disability discharge mechanism. Potential provisions include:

  1. Incentivize employers to hire disabled workers with postsecondary degrees. They need jobs to repay their student loan debt. Codifying incentives to employ them will help counter ableist hiring practices and make them more attractive applicants, providing the opportunity to demonstrate their value in the workforce.
  2. Allow disabled people to qualify for Public Service Loan Forgiveness with part-time employment or volunteer roles. Disabled people are more likely to be employed part-time, unemployed and looking for work, or out of the workforce entirely. This includes borrowers with training in social services, medicine, public health and research. Many of these workers transfer these skills to disability advocacy and other volunteer roles, thus providing a public service.
  3. Reduce percentage of income subject to income-driven repayment. Having a higher financial burden for medical care, mobility and assistive devices, and caregiving needs effectively reduces discretionary income. Lowering the discretionary income threshold will enable them to care for themselves while still meeting their repayment requirements.
  4. Suspend interest accrual during periods of unemployment. Disabled borrowers frequently find themselves unemployed because of medical or social reasons. Pausing the accrual of interest during these periods will allow them to search for employment that suits their needs and ambitions without the ever-present burden of increasing debt.

Student debt suppresses dreams and aspirations. The COVID-19 pause is set to evaporate in September, reattaching the yoke of repayment to an increasingly overburdened population. Hiring biases, unemployment and changes in health status are not only experienced by disabled people. Disability sensitive debt relief, like all anti-ableist policies, would ultimately benefit able-bodied people as well.

Instituting debt relief for disabled borrowers is overdue. The tools to help exist. We merely need the political willpower to make it happen.

Cyrena Gawuga, Ph.D., M.S.W., is a public health social worker and director of research at the Preparedness and Treatment Equity Coalition. She is also a Public Voices Fellow of The OpEd Project in partnership with AcademyHealth.