Careers & Guidance, Financial Literacy, Social Justice, Special Education

One Size Does Not Fit All: Financial Literacy for Students with Physical Disabilities

One Size Does Not Fit All: Financial Literacy for Students with Physical Disabilities

Originally published in TEACH Magazine, May/June 2021 Issue

By Lisa J. Lamb

It is expensive to be disabled in America… and to live independently. I should know because I myself am a disabled American. Associated costs of living with a physical disability that are not covered by insurance include home and vehicle modifications, furniture, and adaptive devices. To make a home wheelchair accessible can cost anywhere from $40,000 to $100,000; vehicle modifications range from around $10,000 to $90,000.

At the same time, 1 out every 3 non-institutionalized persons with disabilities (PWD) in the United States live in households at or below the poverty line, and only 37 percent of PWD are in the workforce. The expense of PWD living on their own is further exacerbated when they cannot get a job. Many are capable of work and want to work, but negative attitudes and the perceptions of employers are major obstacles to obtaining a job, earning an income, and living independently.

I feel that teachers, through a Critical Disability pedagogy, can help to better prepare their students with physical disabilities to face these issues, and other unique financial challenges, as they enter adulthood. It certainly would’ve helped me.

My Brain, Seriously?

“Kid, this is as good as its going to get. We’ve done all we can do. Your body is physically disabled, but you have a brain. You are never going to be able to get a regular job. You will never be able to do manual labor or be a waitress or a nurse or an airline stewardess. You are going to have to use your head and you are going to have to work twice as hard to be half as good. You will always have to be one better than your able-bodied peers just to get by, and it’s not going to be easy.”

That’s what my doctor told me when I was fourteen years old, in a family meeting after two years of physical and occupational therapy and multiple surgeries. I thought to myself, use my brain? Seriously? We were not college people. College was for rich people or smart people and I was neither. My mother had an eighth grade education, and my father got his G.E.D. in the military. We were working poor. My father never made more than $20,000 a year his entire life.

As we left the doctor’s office, my mother said, “Don’t worry. We’ll find a nice man to marry you. Or you can become a nun and the Church will take care of you.” I was not crazy about either one of those ideas.

I didn’t know what I was going to do. My parents didn’t know what to do. The insurance of the person that hit me with her car ran out long ago and my parents had mortgaged their house for my medical bills. My mother had to quit her job to take care of me. The house wasn’t handicapped accessible and, except for the few modifications my father could do himself, most of the time I had to be carried by my brother—when he wasn’t home, I dragged myself around.

I wished there were someone who could help us, help me.

We were denied social security disability. If there were services out there, we didn’t know about them. PWD are basically told “sink or swim”—find a job you are physically able to do, like handing out shopping carts at Walmart for below minimum wage, or find someone who will take care of you.

Sink or swim? We were drowning.

As I entered high school, I began to formulate a career path; because I wanted to help other people like myself with disabilities, I decided to become an occupational therapist. However, when I went on to college, I received a letter from the State that I would not be granted certification because of my disability. (This was prior to the protections that the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) would offer.) I thought, who better to help PWD than someone with their own disability? But it was not to be. I left college, knowing that I was capable, but feeling defeated.

Then, on July 26, 1990, the ADA passed. I returned to school that fall, knowing that this time no one could legally tell me I couldn’t reach my goals. Instead of occupational therapy, I chose to become a teacher. I’ve since taught in classrooms for over 20 years and also worked as an assistant principal.

But over time I’ve realized that my doctor had been right. I’ve had to work twice as hard and always be one step ahead of my able-bodied competitors. When applying for a position that required a bachelor’s degree, I went in with a master’s. If a job required a master’s, I had two, and eventually three. Now I am working on my doctorate, and hope to one day instruct future teachers.

Personal Finance Education

Students with physical disabilities (SWPD) need inclusive, specific, and specialized financial literacy training to navigate the marginalization and exclusion that stands as a barrier to reaching financial stability as an adult. What if teachers could guide students in the way that I had hoped for, after my doctor gave me my “reality check”? I wish someone had told me what services were available and steered me through the bureaucracy, informed me of my rights, and taught me, specifically as a physically disabled student, what I needed to do to establish a viable career.


The goal of a personal finance course in high school is to prepare students for their financial futures. There is usually an activity where students are randomly assigned a career, given a salary, and instructed to create a budget—which must include money for rent, utilities, an auto loan, insurance, etc.—while also trying to save money, make investments, and learn the pros and cons of credit cards.

Looking through the critical lens of a student with a physical disability, imagine being in a wheelchair and the computer budgeting program randomly selects “construction worker” for a career. The student spends the next several weeks researching the position, skills to learn through a trade school, finding a job, and planning a budget based on a career they will never have. Not only is the student left emotionally defeated, they are no better prepared for life after high school than they were before.

Students with cognitive, intellectual, and even behavioral disabilities are given basic financial instruction and job placement opportunities based on their own abilities in their special education classes. But SWPD are only given the “one size fits all” approach, without any accommodations or variations in content. A personal finance course specifically developed for SWPD would acknowledge the additional costs required to meet their needs and prepare them for the expenses associated with living on their own, beyond the general instruction taught to all high school students.

The course would begin with an honest assessment of abilities matched with a student interest survey. Students would explore colleges and technical schools, careers, incomes, benefits, and disability services to provide a context to satisfy the budget standards of the course. More importantly, SWPD would also be made aware of their legal rights as described in the ADA, the U.S. Department of Justice, and the United Nations Convention on Persons with Disabilities.

SWPD do not currently have an Individual Education Plan (IEP) or any type of 504 (a specific plan for students with disabilities) that legally requires a transition plan for after high school. A specialized course in personal finance for SWPD should compensate for this, and be designed to provide opportunities for teaching life skills (through a disability mentoring program, for example) that would equip students with the knowledge, confidence, and self-advocacy to help them transition to live independently or with the help of a personal health aid.

Changing Attitudes

It is not enough to know disability rights and services for independent living. There is still the problem of the perceptions and marginalization that prevents PWD—even with the appropriate ability, knowledge, and skills—from obtaining a job and evading a life of poverty. The perceptions of an employer, in particular, can often be a major obstacle.

These opinions, shaped by societal perspectives and negative attitudes which have been learned from family and friends over time, result in unfavorable predispositions towards PWD. Because of this, employers, especially in competitive markets, are more likely to choose an able-bodied person over a PWD. Many employers are unaware of the legalities of accommodations or think the mere presence of a PWD might make customers and fellow employees “uncomfortable.”

This subliminal marginalization and ableism (the belief that able-bodied is normal and PWD are not) is what the ADA was trying to address. Thirty years later, PWD are still fighting the same battles to be able to live and work alongside their able-bodied peers.

Notions about employment and the ostracism of a group of people develop long before a PWD ever fills out an application or sends in a resume. Perceptions of people with noticeable disabilities begin early in childhood. As with the marginalization of other groups, this type of ableism needs to stop, and that can only happen through education and understanding.

Attitudes are learned and can therefore be unlearned. Teachers and curriculum developers can fill their classroom libraries with books that have diverse characters with varying disabilities. Children who grow up learning about people of all types of abilities become accepting adults who see others for what they can do, not what they can’t, and will be more likely to hire people based on their skill level to do a job rather than worrying about their disabilities.

Here are some recommended readings for early learners: 

  • Look What We Can Do! by Brittany Adkins
  • My Three Best Friends and Me, Zulay by Cari Best
  • Not So Different: What You Really Want to Ask About Having a Disability by Shane Burcaw
  • Same, Same but Different by Jenny Sue Kostecki-Shaw
  • Special People, Special Ways by Arlene Maguire
  • Emmanuel’s Dream: The True Story of Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah by Laurie Ann Thompson

It Should Not Be This Hard

The doctor was right—it has not been easy. I’ve struggled against people telling me that I couldn’t do something my entire life and I’ve had to fight for everything I have and everything I’ve done. I am an accomplished, disabled woman in a two-handed, abled-bodied world, and it should not be this hard.

PWD have long been marginalized as “others” in a “normative” society, yet there are over one billion people across the globe that have a disability, making us one of the largest marginalized groups in the world. Critical pedagogy asks students to question the beliefs and practices of the dominant narrative, developing an awareness of PWD in the able-bodied world. To see through the critical lens of a PWD allows the normative society to have a better understanding of our perspective.

Lisa J. Lamb is a veteran teacher of 21 years and former high school administrator. She is currently completing her PhD at North Carolina State University. She lives in Angier, NC, with her husband, and they have three grown children.