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Independent Living News & Policy from the National Council on Independent Living

Elevate Blog: Can You Run for Office if You’re On Social Security?

One of the most common questions we receive about running for office is: “I receive Social Security benefits. Can I run for office?” The Social Security Administration (SSA) does not have any official guidance on their website about how campaigning or holding office can impact eligibility.

NCIL reached out to SSA last fall to ask them about whether running for office can affect someone’s Supplemental Security Income (SSI) payments or Social Security Disability (DIB) benefits. SSA evaluates someone’s eligibility on a case-by-case basis. However, SSA does say that campaigning or holding elected office may impact your eligibility for SSI or DIB. We have included the full answer below. Their answer goes into more detail about how campaigning or holding office can impact eligibility for benefits. If you have any further questions, we recommend that you reach out to the Social Security Administration directly or talk to a benefits lawyer.

Answer from the Social Security Administration:

“We are unable to provide you with a definitive answer because disability determinations are necessarily fact-specific and must be performed on a case-by-case basis.  However, we can offer you general information about how such activities may affect eligibility or entitlement to benefits.

First, it is important to note that our rules require beneficiaries to inform the Agency of events that may affect their disability status.  Such events include a return to work, an increase in hours worked, or an increase in earnings received.  Holding an elected office, even if part-time or unpaid, is work that the beneficiary should report.  Furthermore, our rules also require a beneficiary to report medical improvement that allows them to return to work.  Thus, if the beneficiary’s ability to campaign correlates with medical improvement, he or she should report that medical improvement to us.  This information will generally require the agency to initiate a review to evaluate whether the beneficiary continues to be disabled under the Social Security Act.

Under the Act, an individual who engages in substantial gainful activity is not disabled. Accordingly, if a beneficiary’s income from an elected position qualifies as substantial gainful activity, then that beneficiary is likely no longer disabled under the Act, regardless of the nature of the work.  In addition, earnings from political activity are not typically excepted from SSI income and resource evaluations.  Thus, earnings from such political work that fall short of substantial gainful activity may still reduce or eliminate eligibility for SSI.

Regardless of earnings, a beneficiary’s demonstrated ability to work, or perform activities similar to work, may show that the beneficiary no longer meets our standard for disability.  Whether campaign activities or the duties performed in elective office demonstrate that the beneficiary is no longer disabled is a fact-specific inquiry, and we are not able to provide you a definitive answer in the abstract.  We would have to consider whether the beneficiary’s specific campaign or office activities, among other factors, demonstrate that he or she has the functional ability to work.  If he or she does, it is likely the Agency will find that the beneficiary is no longer disabled.  Thus, even part-time or unpaid work may result in a termination of disability benefits.

For the reasons discussed above, campaigning for or holding elective office, regardless of whether such position is full-time or paid, may affect a beneficiary’s entitlement or eligibility for both SSI and DIB.  As noted above, we would evaluate the impact of those activities and any earnings on a case-by-case basis to determine the impact on any particular beneficiary.”

Elevate Blog: Interview with Representative Jessica Benham

Elevate Logo - Campaign Training for People with Disabilities. Graphic features the US Capitol Rotunda.

Representative Jessica Benham is a freshman legislator in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, representing the 36th District. She is queer, autistic and has Ehlers Danlos Syndrome, a rare genetic connective tissue disorder. Representative Benham is both the first openly LGBTQ woman and openly autistic legislator in the Pennsylvania State House.

Before Representative Benham ran for office, she was one of the cofounders of the Pittsburgh Center for Autistic Advocacy, a nonprofit run by and for autistic people. Her work focused on ensuring that public policy reflected the participation of autistic people. The shift from fighting for autistic people to be heard to being a decision maker was a big change for Representative Benham: “being in a place where people have to listen to me is a change, but the ability to lift up the concerns of disabled people and provide people a platform from which to speak is a real honor.”

I sat down with Representative Benham to ask her some questions about why she decided to run for office, what her campaign was like, and advice she would give to other disabled folks who are considering running for office. Her answers have been edited for length and clarity.

Why did you decide to run for office?

Honestly, running for office was not something I ever thought I would do. The first time someone suggested that I should run, I laughed at them. As more and more folks from my community asked me to step up and serve, they helped me imagine a world in which people could accept me for who I was. While of course I would face discrimination, stigma, and people’s bigotry and biases, the vast majority of people would see someone who would fight for them.

Why do you think it’s important for disabled people to run for elected office, especially those who are LGBTQ?

I think it’s important for our elected bodies to represent and reflect the population at large, so that means that those bodies like the Pennsylvania General Assembly should be diverse. That means that they should include disabled folks, queer folks, and Black and brown folks. It’s important because we legislate from our lived experience. Like a lot of folks from my community, I’m a working class kid. That background has helped a lot of folks in my community understand that I know what they’re going through. I’ve experienced hardship, and certainly, I also experienced ableism and homophobia, sexism, all those things. All those experiences give me a thick skin and also give me a determination to fight for folks who have been left out of the political process.

What was your campaign like? Were there any campaign practices that you had to adapt or do differently?

I think that it’s hard to tell, because campaigning this year was so much different from typical campaigning anyways [due to the pandemic]. So I think a lot of disabled folks with mobility disabilities have found that door knocking doesn’t necessarily work for them, but we weren’t door knocking anyways post-February. While I love knocking doors and that’s enjoyable for me, in many ways, all of my campaign activities became accessible to folks with mobility disabilities simply because we were doing everything from home. So I think it’s hard to tell.

I think that the perspective with which I approached campaigning is different. I don’t think that people should compromise their mental and physical health on campaign: candidates, staff, or volunteers. In the broader culture of campaigning, there’s the sense of you don’t care about your job unless you sacrifice all those things for it. I tried to make it clear to my staff that I wanted people to have work-life balance.

How would you like to see campaigns adopt some of these changes in the future?

In many ways, campaigning is a science of what typically works. It is unfortunately true that due to the time-compressed nature of campaigns that it would be difficult for all campaign activities [to change]. The playing field wouldn’t be level if one campaign chose to not door knock, for example, because we know face-to-face conversations are just so effective. And yet on the other hand, there is this troubling thing that campaigns do where they devalue certain kinds of voter contact. While broadly speaking, door knocking reaches the most amount of voters, it is not the most effective way to reach every voter, and that’s important. For some voters, calling or texting is most effective. In the future, campaigns should use every tool at their disposal for voter contact. I had some of the best times at virtual fundraisers, because we did fun things like Labor History Bingo. We wouldn’t have done that at an in-person event. It’s hanging onto some of those creative and clever things, recognizing that there is still a lot of power in virtual campaign activities, and not losing sight of that.

Do you have any advice for people with disabilities who are considering running for office? 

On the accessibility of campaigning, I think it’s helpful to find somebody who has the same kinds of access needs as you who ran for office to find out what worked for them. The other thing is to find folks locally who are able to take you under their wing. You cannot run for office just by yourself, so to have folks who hold elected office or who are union leaders, or who hold other positions of leadership in their community taking you under their wing is useful.

One of the things that is useful for being seen as a legitimate candidate is “being seen,” and being seen can be expensive. Finding folks who can facilitate that networking is critical, because it can be difficult to find the financial resources to attend events where you can meet other campaign donors. I think identifying groups of people who will volunteer for you is really important, and that means being an organizer in other areas, [such as] helping out on another grassroots campaign and meeting folks who were really good volunteers for that campaign. I was somebody who organized neighborhood projects. Folks who were willing to pull weeds with me at the neighborhood park would collect signatures [to get on the ballot]. Money is unfortunately important in politics right now, but it’s not everything. I would say it’s more important to have a broad base of volunteers than it is to have a lot of money.

Representative Jessica Benham, a young woman with brown hair wearing a blue face mask and blue coat, stands at a desk and raises her right hand as she takes the oath of office.

Jessica Benham is the State Representative in PA House District 36. Prior to her election, she was co-founder of the Pittsburgh Center for Autistic Advocacy (PCAA), where she had worked to ensure that individuals with disabilities are treated fairly in the legislative process. Previously, while a graduate student at the University of Pittsburgh, she was involved in the effort to organize a union of graduate student workers.  Jessica is the first openly Autistic state legislator in PA and the first out LGBTQ+ woman in the state house. As a state representative, she has focused on fighting for fixes to our unemployment system, better access to COVID testing and vaccines, access to healthcare, a clean and healthy environment, fair funding for education, and LGBTQ and disability rights. 

Elevate Blog: Rajah Sandor on Being a Disabled Campaign Staffer

In October 2020, we sat down with Rajah Sandor to learn about his experiences as a disabled campaign professional, his successes, obstacles he has faced, and advice he has for other disabled people who want to work on campaigns.

Tell us a little bit about yourself. How did you become a campaign professional, and what do you do now?

My name is D. Rajah Sandor, I go by Rajah. I’ve almost completed my 31st year, I’m Indian, and I was born without arms. I definitely came to campaigns later than the typical staffer does, I was 27 the first time I was a paid organizer. I got involved in a local mayoral election in 2015 but did not truly start with campaigns until the primary of 2016. By the end of the primary, I had essentially become a volunteer organizer which got me an interview to be an organizer with the PA coordinated campaign. And that was really it. Campaigns have a very addictive nature to them and so as long as the next gig appeared, I’d take it. Over the last 4 years, I have worked on every type of race except a U.S. Senate, and have served as an organizer, a department head, and as the campaign manager. I am currently the Western Regional Director of the Pennsylvania Senate Democratic Campaign Committee and have been since July.

Why do you think it is important for people with disabilities to volunteer or work on campaigns? 

  1. I think the more people with disabilities that interact with campaigns, the more we normalize it.
  2. By being involved in campaigns, you present the opportunity for the candidate to understand disability issues better.
  3. To force these spaces to become more accessible. Campaigns are all about doing things as cheaply as possible. If they think they can get away with using a space that isn’t ADA accessible, they will.
  4. Because this work is important. For a campaign to truly be successful, even outside of winning or losing the election, the campaign needs to be representative of the community, and the only way we can make sure the disability community is represented is by showing up.
  5. And finally, because we have things to fight for. There are still a number of different ways that our society is and is allowed to be ableist and society will continue to be ableist as long as we let them. Getting involved with campaigns, to elect leaders who care about our issues, or with issue campaigns surrounding our issues is a way we can fight to make our society more equitable, both for our community and other disenfranchised communities.

Did you experience any barriers while working on campaigns? 

Answering this question is hard for me, because I’m sure I have experienced barriers, but by in large I’m too stubborn to notice them as barriers until later. I will say gaining employment was tough, especially in the beginning. Before I was hired as an organizer with the PA coordinated I had easily applied for 15+ organizer jobs and I remember feeling frustrated enough that I disclosed my disability in that interview and said, I know I can do I just need someone to believe me. Even after being an organizer, I was unemployed until March of the following year, when I showed up at a gubernatorial primary campaign where a friend was working & that was understaffed and I made myself useful enough that they had to put me on staff. The only other barrier of note, is the fact that I essentially broke even during my first 2 years working on campaigns, because of shared rides costs. As I don’t drive, early in my career I would let whomever I disclosed my disability to know that I would take on my transportation costs for fear of being seen as too expensive or even a financial liability. 

What have been some of your successes as a campaign professional? 

I won the first race I managed, by 793 votes. I have developed & executed multiple successful Get Out the Vote & Election Day strategies. I have largely taught myself what I need to know to understand voting data & craft a successful DVC (direct voter contact) program.

What can campaigns do to make it easier for people with disabilities to work on them?

Make sure they are in accessible spaces. Hire folks with disabilities. Include our issues before we get there. Get rid of some of the classist expectations, that you should be able to pick up and move, or do this work without healthcare, or able to commit to 10-14 hour days at least 6 days a week. 

What advice would you give to people with disabilities who want to work on or volunteer for campaigns?

Do it. Understand that it is going to be tough, but do it. Don’t be deterred by the 25th person who underestimates what you bring to the table, just be a badass. You’re going to have to make space for yourself, but it’s important that you take up that space. If you’re thinking about actually working on a campaign, make sure you that this really is what you want for the next X number of months of your life because winning isn’t guaranteed and some days you feel the ableism so much more strongly. Find friends with disabilities that you can vent to, that can relate. You are clearing the way for whoever is coming next. Fight like hell to be treated equally so that whoever follows may be able to fight a little less.

Elevate Blog: Want to Run for Office? Think Local

Did you know that there are 519,682 elected positions in the United States? When we think of elected officials, we often think about the President and members of Congress. However, there are only 542 federal offices. Our state governments make up only 3.6% of the elected positions in the country. Local elected officials are 96% the elected officials in the country. There are over 500,000 local elected positions in the country.

If you are considering running for office for the first time, think local. There are many different positions in local government, such as:

  • City council
  • Mayor
  • School board
  • County commissioner
  • Positions requiring specific knowledge, like auditor or coroner

Each local government has a different structure, and different elected offices. You should research what positions are available in your community. Think about how you want to be involved in your community. Do you want to change laws? Are you interested in education? Do you have specific skills in an area like finance or engineering? Some offices require specific knowledge and training, while others are open to everyone.

Holding a local office allows you to serve your community directly. Big, sweeping legislation at the national level is important. But the fact is that local government has a large influence on our lives. School board members make decisions on education for children in their community. Mayors and city councils make many small and large decisions to run a city. Local government influences law, finances, education, community programs, and more.

Running for local office makes practical sense for a first-time candidate. It costs money to get on the ballot and to run a campaign. A local campaign usually requires a smaller budget than state or federal races. A local campaign may require a smaller time commitment, and you may be able to keep your current job. Keeping your job is important if the position you’re running for doesn’t have a salary or has a low salary.

Local campaigns make strategic sense as well. If you want to run for a larger office someday, you need to build name recognition. Having name recognition means that voters know who you are and what you represent. If you are active in your local community, you may have name recognition. You may be known as a community member, a volunteer, or an advocate, for example. In a campaign, you build more name recognition through campaigning. This lets voters know who you are and why they should vote for you. Running for and serving in local office can help build name recognition for future state and federal races. It will also help you gain experience that will make you a better candidate in future races.

Have we convinced you to consider running for local office? Here are some resources to learn more:

Elevate Blog: Fundraising and the Power of Disabled Leadership: Interview with Dom Kelly

Elevate Logo - Campaign Training for People with Disabilities. Graphic features the US Capitol Rotunda.

Dom Kelly works for Fair Fight, a voting rights organization founded by Stacey Abrams and based in Atlanta, Georgia, where he helps lead fundraising efforts for both the organization’s PAC and 501(c)(4). He is also a person with Cerebral Palsy who is passionate about disability justice and building political power within the disability community. He took the time to tell us why it’s important for people with disabilities to run for office, and to share his wisdom about fundraising.

Why do you think it is important for people with disabilities to run for elected office?

Dom: I am extremely passionate about getting disabled people to run for elected office, and there are a couple reasons I think it’s important. The first is that lawmakers who understand what it’s like to be disabled can create and uphold laws that actually benefit folks with disabilities. Too often we see that the disabled community is ignored and disregarded; COVID-19 and the events surrounding the pandemic has really brought to light what we in the community have known to be true, which is that our lives are often considered expendable. Lawmakers think nothing of taking away our access to affordable healthcare if it’s politically beneficial to them. Congress’s inability to address issues like gun violence, systemic racism, and police brutality mean that the disabled community is even more at risk of being harmed. Some politicians engaging in voter suppression have actively tried to take away our right to vote. All of these are just some examples of what we could be addressing through a disability lens if people with disabilities ran and won elected office. Second, I believe representation matters. As a kid, I rarely if ever saw people on TV, whether they be characters, actors, politicians, or news anchors, who were disabled like me. Seeing someone with a disability in a leadership and decision-making role can go a long way in cultivating confidence and power among folks in our community. “Identity politics” is a dirty term among some, but not for me – identity is vital for our survival.

Some people who want to run for office are afraid of having to ask for money. How can people who are afraid of fundraising get comfortable with it?    

Dom: Like it or not, raising money is a necessary activity for any organization, campaign or otherwise. The first time getting on the phone to ask someone to give can be scary, but it gets easier with each ask. It may be easier to start by planning an email or social media fundraising campaign before you start asking for larger amounts of money. At the end of the day, though, you are really selling yourself and your vision to voters, so if you feel confident in your candidacy and your platform, you’ll be able to get more comfortable with asking them to contribute.

What goes into setting a fundraising goal?

Dom: It really depends on your budget and what staff you plan to hire/what activities you undertake. When you’re soliciting, it’s always good to go to donors with a total number you are trying to reach in that stretch and an idea of what their contribution will go toward, so really understanding what your budget is and how you plan to spend the money is integral on multiple fronts. In an email or social media campaign, it might be a good idea to set a smaller goal and ask your supporters to help you reach it in a specific timeframe.

Let’s say you’re reaching out to a supporter to ask them to donate. How do you decide how much money to ask them for?  

Dom: Before you sit down for call time, you have to make sure you have done all the research on the potential donor. That includes understanding their background, what they currently do, and most importantly, their giving history. Knowing what they’ve given to other candidates, PACs, etc. will be necessary in being able to decide on an ask.

Do you have any other advice for our readers, especially first-time fundraisers?

Dom: I like to think that fundraising is akin to community-building in that you are developing a group of supporters that believe in a similar vision and have aligned values, so just as if you were creating and growing a group on Facebook and feeding them content constantly, donors need to be kept equally engaged. They are going to want to be fed lots of information and understand how their investment is actually making an impact. Remember, the people who give you money are the ones who believe in you the most. You have to keep them engaged beyond continuing to ask them to contribute to your campaign. That engagement can translate into volunteering, more giving, and ultimately, for candidates, their enthusiastic vote at the ballot box. Your donors are not just ATMs – they are people who believe in you, and you need to keep them engaged.

A young white man wearing a blue button-up shirt smiles at the camera


Dom Kelly is the Development Manager at Fair Fight Action, a voting rights organization founded by Stacey Abrams, as well as a lifelong disability justice activist. As a person with Cerebral Palsy, he is passionate about furthering disabled representation in politics and government. A native New Yorker, he currently lives in Atlanta, Georgia with his wife Catie.

Introducing the Elevate Blog

Elevate Logo - Campaign Training for People with Disabilities. Graphic features the US Capitol Rotunda.

In 2017, you couldn’t find any information online on running for office with a disability. There were no campaign training programs for people with disabilities. There weren’t many news stories on candidates with disabilities. It seemed like learning how to run for office with a disability was a well-kept secret.

At the same time, more Americans became interested in running for office. More than twice as many women ran for Congress in 2018 than in 2016. Programs that teach people how to run for office became more popular. New campaign training programs were created. There were campaign trainings for members of different political parties. There were campaign training programs for different identities, like people of color and first-generation Americans. These great resources grew and trained more and more Americans to run for office. Still, there was a major information gap for people with disabilities.

At NCIL, we decided that it was time to fix this problem. Diverse leadership is important because the government’s decisions impact many parts of our lives. Elected officials decide how to run our towns and cities. They make decisions about public transit and schools. They decide how to use our tax dollars and create the laws that govern our society. People with disabilities should be involved in making those decisions.

For two years, I interviewed candidates with disabilities. I learned about how they ran their campaigns and the challenges they faced. What I learned made it even clearer that we need a campaign training program for people with disabilities. In 2019, I teamed up with Neal Carter of Nu View Consulting to solve this problem. We created Elevate, the first and only campaign training for people with disabilities. Hundreds of people tuned into the five Elevate webinars or watched the recordings on our website.

I’m thrilled to say that we will be continuing Elevate in 2021.  We’re working hard to improve the program based on the feedback we received in 2019. We are so excited to continue training people with disabilities to run for office.

Creating this program is challenging because there is no one “disability experience.” A candidate who is a wheelchair user will have a different experience from a Deaf candidate. A candidate who is blind has needs that are different from the needs of a candidate who has chronic pain. The campaign process for one person may look different from the campaign process for another person. So how can we learn about these different experiences?

We can learn by talking to people with disabilities, of course! In this blog, we will interview candidates, volunteers, and staff with disabilities about their experiences. We will also answer common questions about running for office. We will talk about what you need to think about if you want to run for office or join a campaign.

It’s clear that the disability community has a passion for civic engagement. With the right tools and knowledge, we can take that passion and commitment beyond the ballot box. We can represent our community in elected office or on a campaign. We can effect change.

We’re excited about starting this blog, and we want your input! What would you like us to talk about? Send your questions to:

Sarah Blahovec
sarah@ncil.org
202-207-0334 extension 1103