Topeka Lorraine Cannistra, who has cerebral palsy, hasn't worked for eight years because she said if she earned too much she would lose her government-provided health care benefits.
On Monday, the Lawrence resident returns to the work force and she credits a new $2 million program in Kansas that will allow her to retain benefits while working.
"It has been a long, hard fight for a long time," said Cannistra, who will start as a tutor at Kansas University. Cannistra is Ms. Wheelchair Kansas 2007.
State and federal officials, Kansans with disabilities and their advocates on Wednesday applauded the program that will allow people with significant disabilities to work and also retain the health services they need.
Kansas is the first state in the nation to institute some of these changes to its Medicaid plan, officials said.
The Work Opportunities Reward Kansas program is aimed at increasing self-reliance and independence for people with disabilities. Andy Allison, Kansas Medicaid director, said he expected the program to help several hundred people during the next couple of years.
Advocates said the program would make significant changes in lives of Kansans with disabilities.
"For decades, people with disabilities have been caught up in a Catch-22," said Shannon Jones, executive director of the Statewide Independent Living Council of Kansas. She said many of the 75 percent of people with disabilities who are unemployed don't work because they face losing their Medicaid benefits or assistance they need to live.
"We've been forced to live in dependency and in poverty. For far too long, having a disability meant that we were destined to live in a life of poverty," Jones said.
For example, Jones said that under one Medicaid program, a recipient could earn no more than $720 per month or they would lose their health care benefits.
The new program allows people with disabilities to pay a premium to maintain Medicaid services that includes personal assistance, counseling and direct payment of assistance that will allow recipients to control their own services.
Brad Linnenkamp, of Lawrence, who uses a wheelchair and works at the Self Advocate Coalition of Kansas, said he believes the program will help him later in life when he needs more personal assistance.
"It will make it easier for me to continue to work," he said, because it would allow him a personal assistant to help him shop and run errands. "That piece will be big for me to continue working and staying as independent as possible."
Jones said the program has been needed for a long time.
"Real jobs with real pay is what adults with disabilities want," she said.