Living in Poverty in California: My Experience as a Disabled Person

Category: Listening Sessions, Personal Stories, Poverty News & Policy Updates, The Safety Net

July 05th, 2023

Percy Parker is a freelance writer and editor living in California.

Too often, the voices of oppressed communities are underrepresented in discussions of critical issues that directly impact their lives. That’s certainly the case when it comes to people with disabilities and poverty. 

In California, approximately 26% of working-age disabled people live in poverty, compared to 14% of those without disabilities, yet there is little discussion of how poverty and disability intersect. We know that there are laws protecting the rights of disabled people in the workplace and government aid to ensure that disparities like this don’t happen, so what’s going on here? 

It was a little over a year ago when I lost my job for reasons directly related to my disabilities. I suffer chronic pain and chronic fatigue (CFS), frequent disturbing flashbacks and physiological reactions from PTSD, daily amnesic episodes, pain and temperature sensitivity from Raynaud’s syndrome, and other symptoms that arise from struggling with mental illness.

I had done everything right—filled out the paperwork, reminded the temp agency of my limitations, explained when I was unable to work and why—but it wasn’t enough. Around November, my weak immune system attempted to battle a flu for two weeks so I was unable to work. Because I only did temporary work, it was easy to simply not accept new jobs during that time. But I ran out of money quickly and had to go back before I was ready. I’d be standing in a warehouse for 8-12 hours a day feeling dizzy, shaky, and hot. The work took a toll on my mind and body and exacerbated the effects of my already poor mental health. 

For months at this job, in the middle of the pandemic with my PTSD in full swing, I would be standing at the assembly line sobbing, unable to stop, fighting the urge to run away and hide from the horrible images that filled my brain. The meaningless, repetitive work of folding boxes only forced me further into my own head. The anxiety got so severe that I’d be stuck home throwing up, unable to come in for days. When the money ran out I would return to work, having to make a break for the bathroom as needed and then trying to catch up on folding boxes.

At the first couple of locations I worked at nobody seemed to care. Eventually, a manager at one of the warehouses took me aside and assured me that it was better for me to go home and rest. I tried to return to that job a few more times but was sent home for being too ill, so I contacted my temp agency to say that I was finished there and would let them know when I was ready to take on new work. 

January rolled around and I contacted the agency. They said they would not be connecting me with any more jobs because of my poor attendance. Less than a month later, as financial pressures became more dire and I was less able to take care of myself,  I admitted myself to a psychiatric hospital. There were no doctors or therapists present, and the physical condition of the room I was in yielded enough wood and concrete chips that I could have hurt myself if I wanted to. Nobody checked on me even though I had admitted myself for self harm and suicidal thoughts, among other things. Patients were spoken to like we were animals, ignored, and told to back off when we tried to communicate concerns or ask for help. The experience only left me with more trauma.

When I got out, I had no job, barely any money, a huge medical bill, and no hope. After a few months trying to recover, I used whatever reserves of physical and mental strength I had to apply for unemployment. I was denied because I’d not applied right when I lost my job. I filed an appeal and waited. I tried applying for disability benefits three times over the next year, none of which have been processed to date. I doubt they ever will be. Finally, I got a court date and met with a judge on the matter of my wrongful termination. A few months later, the judge ruled in my favor—I was entitled to unemployment benefits and it was recommended that I apply for disability benefits as well. 

For months the unemployment money didn’t come and my disability forms were still not processed. I emailed and called repeatedly—nobody had a straight answer for me. One day I was finally transferred to someone at the top of the chain, who informed me that it didn’t matter what the judge said, I wouldn’t be allowed to claim my unemployment benefits because I had not continued to submit the claims between the time of my appeal and the time of my hearing. I tried to push back on this and advocated for myself many more times, but the truth is, I don’t have as much energy as other people and I couldn’t keep it up. I let them win, and I kept trying to take any job that would have me, even if they didn’t respect my limits and needs. 

I live paycheck to paycheck. Last month I had to spend two weeks of wages on one doctor’s appointment, and was unable to pay my rent. I’ve skipped doses of important medications or had to abruptly stop because I couldn’t afford the treatment as well as other basic needs. I am open to full-time work, even though I know my life will be a living hell if I work that much. I know, too, that if I miss too much sleep I’ll plunge into a manic psychotic episode, and that even then I’ll still have to go to work. I live in fear that if I call in sick one too many times I’ll be fired on the spot, and there would be nothing I could do to save myself from going completely bankrupt in a month or less. 

Disabled people are susceptible to poverty in ways that only drastic change can help. Protections for disabled people in the workplace are oftentimes acknowledged but not acted upon. Trying to get unemployment or disability benefits can be, ironically, inaccessible to many disabled people due to the amount of time, effort, concentration, and sometimes money it takes to collect information and fill out paperwork, and then often we are erroneously denied.

It is not enough to just put a structure in place; policies have to be regularly enforced and reformed—centering people’s dignity and ensuring that the benefits we have a right to are accessible.  That is the only way we will make meaningful progress on the quality of life for more than 435,000 working-age disabled Californians who are living in poverty.