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WEDNESDAY, JANUARY 19, 2005
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MY LIFE
Ashley Reynolds

Living with a disability

Thank you for paying taxes. Thank you also for not cheating on them.

Who am I and why am I thanking you? My name is Ashley. I am disabled because of serious mental illness. Your tax dollars pay for my food, shelter, medical care, transportation and living expenses.

Writing that last paragraph was difficult. I'm not sure how people who know me will react when they read this. Stigma, even in good-hearted people, is difficult to overcome. I do not look sick. I can do some things sometimes, which leads people to believe that I can do anything at any time.

One thing, though, is trickier than stigma and more difficult than "outing" myself as a disabled woman: living on public assistance.

Hard? Not working and having everything you need provided for you, hard? My answer is yes. The welfare system is structured on an all-or-nothing basis. To provide for myself, I must either be sick enough to qualify for public aid or well enough to secure a job that would provide mental health benefits and a $36,000 yearly salary. Should I get to the point where I could work part time, I would lose my health care, housing subsidy and food stamps.

Mind you, I would love not to be sick. I would love to go to work and earn my keep. Going back to work, though, is not as easy as it might seem. Remember the all-or-nothing principle? Right now, I am still too sick to work. I do some volunteer work and have finished my first two years of college. As a teenager, I held summer jobs. With those qualifications and my current limitations, would you hire me and provide me with the salary I need to maintain my lifestyle?

Leaving the job issue aside, even day-to-day life is difficult. I live on less than $600 a month. Fresh fruits, brand-name bath gel, towels, eating out, haircuts, new clothes and a replacement for the broken window in my car are all too expensive, so I go without. My livelihood is subject to the goodwill of legislators and the honesty of taxpayers. Difficulties involved in going from welfare to work prompt me to hope that my prognosis is poor. Each year at my recertification hearings, I feel I must justify my existence to an impersonal system. If you consider that I live with a debilitating mental illness, yes, my life is hard.

To make matters worse, Medicaid funding is being threatened on the state and federal level. Medicaid pays for my doctors and medications. Without it, I have no prescription drug coverage and at least $1,000 a month in drug costs. Plus, I'm just one person.

Consider everyone whose benefits are threatened. Yes, paying for this care is expensive, but it is more expensive to cut the funding. If I could not pay for my doctors and my medications, I would get dangerously ill. At that point, my options would be suicide, going to a state hospital or stealing to provide for my medicine.

While funding Medicaid is expensive, funding a stay at an institution or a prison is even more so. Either way, taxpayers will pay for my medical care, food and housing. If I were in a public institution, your tax dollars would also pay for the people who supervise me and the court system and appeals procedures, if I fought not to be put away. With the current recidivism rate, it is cheaper to fund Medicaid as a preventive measure than to fund jails and hospitals after the fact.

Please understand that I am not asking for pity or even sympathy. Nor am I exaggerating. I write this to explain why I, who have received so much from you, am asking for a favor. Will you please contact your legislator and ask him not to cut or restrict Medicaid funding? This could literally be a question of life or death for me.

I end where I began, with gratitude.

Thank you, public employees, for helping me navigate a tricky system. Thank you, taxpayers, for funding my life. Thank you, legislators, for creating and sustaining programs that help me. Thank you, Decatur, for helping me and people like me, especially when you did not know that you were.

Though life can be hard, I have more reasons to be thankful than to complain. I am blessed to have such a loving community that will walk my hard road with me.

Ashley Reynolds, 26, is a Decatur resident.

Ashley Reynolds Ashley Reynolds

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