Why Student Loans are a Disability Rights Issue

It is no secret that student loan debt is one of the most serious issues facing young U.S. citizens today. Falling only behind mortgage debt, student loan debt is owed by over 44 million Americans, to the tune of $1.5 trillion. While paying off student loan debt is difficult enough for any individual, for those living with disabilities it becomes a much more daunting task. Though there are more progressive politicians fighting to reduce student loan debt than ever before, the challenge is still very real.

Students With Disabilities Often Have To Take Additional Loans

For students managing physical and mental health issues, taking out loans in order to obtain a higher education might require them to take out more than another individual may have to. Where one student might only need to take out loans exclusively for tuition, those with disabilities might have a slew of additional costs that need to be covered by loans. For many with disabilities, choosing to attend college or university means forgoing the ability to earn a living wage.

Many people are able to, and often need to, work during their time seeking higher education. However, for people living with disabilities, there might not be a choice in the matter and they might not be able to work at all during their time at a college or university. This inability to work, either due to a disability that prevents them from working or a learning disability that requires them to dedicate far more time to study, can force those with disabilities to take out additional loans for their education in order to be able to put food on the table and have a place to sleep and study. Additionally, if a student is receiving financial assistance from other programs that have conflicting requirements, it can make obtaining financial aid more difficult in the first place.

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When students with disabilities find themselves in a situation in which they had to take out hefty loans, using those loans efficiently becomes a huge priority. Creating a strict budget, taking advantage of student discounts, and renting or buying used textbooks are all solid ways to save money at college or university. However, even when implementing all the money-saving tips and tricks available to them, students with disabilities still have to contend with paying back their loans once out of school.

Those Loans Can Be Especially Difficult To Pay Back

Paying off debt in a timely manner is already hard for many young Americans. It’s vital to determine how much debt is actually owed by looking at all the sources of debt such as credit cards and student loans, both federal and private, then setting a budget to begin paying off that debt. 

Though much progress has been made over the last few decades in combatting discrimination, people with disabilities still find themselves facing it regularly, especially in the workplace. Discrimination against disabilities, though illegal, still occurs during the hiring process and throughout the workplace, placing extra strain on those with disabilities when it comes to paying back student loan debts. When people with disabilities are either denied entry into a job field or given fewer opportunities to advance, it severely hinders their ability to pay back the student loan debt that they accrued training for their particular field.

Eventually, if student loans aren’t paid back, they will fall into default. This means that people with disabilities may no longer have access to future financial aid or loan forgiveness, and may even have their tax returns withheld from them. Collection agencies not only hound those with debts, but iadditionally tack on up to a 25% fee on the total amount of the loan, which can lead to financial ruin. Defaulting on student loans can even result in the seizure of assets in an attempt by debt collectors to make good on debts.

Relief Is Available With Many Caveats

While student loan debt can seem utterly terrifying, especially to those living with mental or physical disabilities, federal loans have the potential to be completely discharged through a total and permanent disability (TPD) discharge. However, to be eligible for a TPD, one must have the appropriate documentation from their physician, the Department of Veterans Affairs, or the Social Security Administration (SSA). If someone isn’t a veteran, they will have to use either their physician or the SSA to provide documentation for TPD discharge eligibility with further stipulations. 

One of the most difficult caveats that comes with a TPD discharge is that an individual must not hold employment that provides annual earnings that exceed the minimum poverty line for a family of two in their state of residence for three years. This effectively means that in order to be relieved of the federal debt, an individual who spent time and effort to obtain a college degree will not be able to use it to make money for three years. Students may also find that they are ineligible for a TPD discharge if they are not already receiving SSI or SSDI, both of which have lengthy and arduous application processes themselves. Additionally, the Trump administration has made it clear that they have no intention of stopping the taxation of forgiven student loan debt.

For many living with a disability, the best option is to try and find work immediately out of school in order to maintain their independence and financial security. Fortunately, there are many options available to graduates with disabilities when it comes to starting businesses or finding and maintaining employment at any level. While it is not a perfect solution to the student debt crisis for those living with disabilities, it does allow them the ability to provide for themselves and gain a certain level of confidence and pride. 

Student loans are starting to be seen as a predatory force, and at-risk groups like those living with disabilities can end up suffering the worst outcomes. Many have to take out additional loans that they then have a more difficult time paying back, and while there is assistance available, it is cold comfort in the face of what the student loan industry is doing to young Americans.


Author: Sam Bowman