If anyone can get us to pay attention to how ableism strips people of their right to thrive, it’s disability rights activist Imani Barbarin. In a recent TikTok, Barbarin sheds light on the “marriage penalty,” a term used to describe the legal rule that robs disabled people of a chunk of their supplemental security income (SSI) if they decide to get married.
“Will you marry me? Imagine that was a question you could never actually answer,” Barbarin says in her viral 40-second post. “Well, that is the case for thousands of disabled people.”
This is the fate many disabled people grapple with when deciding whether to marry the person they love or to protect their access to health care and SSI benefits. As the government’s Social Security site states, “Benefits for a married couple, both of whom receive SSI and have no other income, amount to 25 percent less than the total they would receive if they were living together but not as husband and wife.”
In recent years, disability activists have mobilized in their fight against the unjust rule that screws them over financially should they decide to get married. The marriage penalty is just one of many systems that isolate disabled people and make it much more challenging to embrace their prerogative to pair up. Barbarin’s post was sparked by one of these protests — a public commitment ceremony hosted by the Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund (DREDF), which took place in Washington, D.C., last Wednesday.
At the group ceremony, couples and their loved ones gathered around a stage with a huge heart-shaped flower arch and the U.S. Capitol as the backdrop. The demonstration, as The New York Times describes, was an opportunity for disabled people to publicly commit to their partners while sending a message to the government about how damaging the marriage penalty is. Couples also showed support online using the hashtag #disabledloveisbeautiful to share their experiences navigating love and the red tape that makes it impossible for them to have their “happily ever after.”
According to DREDF, this issue affects over 7 million people who receive SSI and an additional 1 million who qualify for Disabled Adult Child (DAC) benefits. The agencies that determine eligibility for these benefits apparently have this rationale: Your partner’s income is an asset ― one that can potentially put you over the asset cap when combined with your income.
Here’s the thing, though: The federal assistance given to disabled people does not equate to a livable income. It consists of modest stipends meant to provide a little support. DREDF reports that over 40% of SSI recipients and almost 36% of DAC recipients have incomes below the poverty line. And according to the National Disability Insitute, a household with one adult disabled person requires, on average, nearly $18,000 extra a year.
Many SSI and DAC recipients cannot work and rely on these benefits to care for themselves. To deprive them of this income just because they get married is absolutely unjust for so many reasons.
There is currently one bill in Congress that could make a difference. The Marriage Equality for Disabled Adults Act, H.R. 6405, introduced by Rep. Jimmy Panetta (D-Calif.) in January 2022, would allow DAC recipients to marry without losing their benefits. Still, it’s pretty disheartening to realize that we need actual laws to allow disabled people to get married without sacrificing their livelihood.