Ready, Willing and Disabled

  • Brendan Costello, 43, was injured in a subway accident that left him a paraplegic.

  • He lives in subsidized housing and supports himself with disability benefits and part-time teaching work.

  • The cost of a manual titanium chair can range from $2000 to $3000 dollars.

  • "I'm more comfortable with my demons than I ought to be," he says. "But, you know, your demons are the ones that stay by you."

  • Navigating public transportation requires regularly checking the MTA website for elevator outages and service changes.

  • Teaching one class a semester at City College enables him to work without losing his disability benefits.

  • Five of Costello's students are being considered for literary awards this semester.

  • Costello leads students through a poem about disaster and the search for what can be salvaged from it.

  • Student Kimberly Bernard, not pictured, said, "His being in a wheelchair added to the class. He's able to really relate."

  • Costello volunteers twice a week at a local radio show called "The Largest Minority" about the disability culture.

  • “A big part of my adjustment was realizing that I could be the same person as I was before my injury." - B. Costello

By Catherine Featherston

It was stifling in the Bleecker Street subway station on the summer night, 17 years ago, that Brendan Costello accidently stepped off the platform and fell into the well between the tracks. Seconds later, a train came rumbling over him.

“I was wearing a tie,” said Costello, 43, “and the tie was on the rail. As far as I know – I really have no memory of how it went down – in trying to stop, the train pulled on the tie and my vertebrae got twisted around.”

Costello, then 27, suffered damage to his first thoracic vertebrae leaving him paralyzed from his abdomen down. The injury also left him with a new perspective on what’s important in life.

“After my injury, I went back to my old job for awhile, part-time, and found myself getting sucked back into the stressed-out negativity that I had before,” he said, describing the monotony of his job doing data-entry for a business media company. “And I thought, I just survived a near-death experience. I’ve been given this new chance, and I’m not going to waste it by spending eight or ten hours a day at a job that I feel keeps stabbing me in the heart.”

But for Costello, and the nearly 450,000 other working-age individuals with disabilities in New York City, getting any job – much less a personally rewarding one – can be exceptionally difficult. According to a report from the Center for Independent Living in New York, the employment rate of people with disabilities is 32 percent – substantially slower than the 73 percent employment rate of people without disabilities. Even with a job, they are likely to be working for lower pay, with less job security and less access to employer-based health coverage, the report says.

“There can be a lot of pitfalls in going back to work,” said Susan Dooha, executive director of the Center. “In some cases, people with disabilities have been unable to get reasonable accommodation, and there is cultural exclusion in the workplace. They need to know their civil rights, how to negotiate, how to function successfully in that environment.”

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) – the federal civil rights law for people with disabilities – was passed in 1990 to improve the lives of people with disabilities. In many respects it has. The ADA and other laws and policies have increased community integration, access to mainstream education, access to transportation and civic participation.

“More buildings and transportation systems are built upon the concept of universal design,” said Andrew Houtenville, director of research at the University of New Hampshire’s Institute on Disability. “In terms of employment, the ADA represents a baseline. It establishes rights, but it’s not a silver bullet that levels the playing field.”

Costello managed to find an unusual solution to his search for a sustainable livelihood. He decided to pursue a master’s degree in creative writing, and eventually began teaching. He lives in subsidized housing and supports himself between his salary as an adjunct professor at City College and disability payments.

“If my disability gives me a special license to actually have a more meaningful life, I’m going to take that,” he said. “And frankly, never walking again is a relatively small price to pay for actually having a life that means more to you than not.”

Finding a winning combination is not easy. To qualify for social security disability benefits in New York, applicants can only earn up to $1040 a month. This can effectively reduce people to life-long poverty. On the other hand, social security benefits are guaranteed and, as the statistics show, a secure job with sufficient compensation for people with disabilities is not.

The federal government is trying a couple of pilot programs to ease work disincentives, but they aren’t getting the support they need, according to Professor Houtenville.

“Vocational rehabilitation and social security disability return-to-work programs haven’t been given a fair shake,” he said. “Right now, it’s an all or nothing proposition.”

The pilot programs provide employment-training services and allow people to stay on disability benefits, for a time, while going back to work. But are these programs sustainable? According to the Congressional Budget Office, disability insurance programs are outpacing dedicated revenues and will continue to do so without reform.

“Unfortunately these programs fall into the category of – you need to spend money to save money,” said Houtenville. “If you help people with disabilities get back to work and expand their opportunities, you’ll save the disability trust fund and supplemental social security money in the long run.”

Costello for one realizes the value of the work-life balance he’s been able to achieve.

“I’m incredibly lucky about so many different things,” he said. “The fact that I can move my hands enables me to write and live on my own. I can take care of myself. Basically I’m completely independent which is a rare gift that I’m aware of.”