NTDC meets needs of disability beneficiaries in pandemic year

The VCU Social Security National Training and Data Center continuously updated web-based resources and supported benefits counselors during the COVID-19 crisis, and will launch a new initiative to advance racial equity in the coming year.

A woman sits at a desk talking on a cell phone.
In a pandemic year, staff at the VCU National Training and Data Center provided over 2,000 hours of technical assistance to benefits counselors working with beneficiaries with disabilities on employment and healthcare issues. (Pexels/PICHA Stock)

In July 2020, the U.S. Social Security Administration awarded a new five-year $27.7 million contract to the Virginia Commonwealth University National Training and Data Center, part of the Rehabilitation Research and Training Center in the VCU School of Education. The award is the largest in the school’s 53-year history. The mission of the center is to promote the employment and economic self-sufficiency of Social Security disability beneficiaries who receive Social Security Disability Insurance or Supplemental Security Income.

The center is part of the Social Security Administration’s efforts to ensure that beneficiaries with disabilities receive accurate information about their benefits, and can use that information to make a successful transition to work. Key to their efforts is a national program of over 700 highly trained “benefits counselors” who provide in-depth counseling to individuals about benefits and support their efforts to achieve their employment and self-sufficiency goals. The center operates the Social Security Administration-approved and -funded certification program, which has trained thousands of benefits counselors in all 50 states and territories who assist disability beneficiaries to expand their employment opportunities and reduce their dependence on federal disability benefits.

“Much of the center’s first-year efforts focused on a response to the COVID-19 crisis,” said Susan O’Mara, National Training and Data Center project director. “Employment of individuals with disabilities dropped by 20 percent in the initial stage of the pandemic. Lack of access to medical therapies and health care rationing led to declines in physical and mental health. The closure of local Social Security offices and lack of access to the internet made it difficult for beneficiaries to obtain and benefit from remote services.”

The center addressed the need of benefits counselors for immediate and accurate information on changes in Social Security policies affecting beneficiaries with disabilities by developing and continuously updating web-based resources for professionals. It developed a special course, Supporting Beneficiaries with a Job Loss, which 386 benefits counselors completed during the year. Center staff provided over 2,000 hours of technical assistance to benefits counselors working with beneficiaries with disabilities on employment and healthcare issues.

In the face of the pandemic, the center transitioned entirely to virtual platforms and continued its national training, certification and professional development programs.

  • Over 1,200 individuals participated in training and certification programs.
  • Over 700 benefits counselors completed the annual recertification process.
  • Over 10,000 disability beneficiaries received support through the center benefits analysis software application used by 330 benefits counselors from across the country.

In the coming year, the center will continue its training activities. We will also be launching a new initiative to support the Social Security Administration’s efforts to implement President Joe Biden’s executive order on advancing racial equity and support for underserved communities through the federal government. The center will develop and implement a data collection system that will enable the Social Security Administration to determine whether people of color and other underserved populations receive equal opportunity and inclusion in the national benefits counseling programs.