A Hurdle For Working Disabled

Making it in Hollywood is hard for any actress, but it's even harder when you're quadriplegic, as Nancy Becker Kennedy can attest. For the disabled, earning just a little money working can lose a great deal on vital benefits. CBS News Correspondent Bill Whitaker reports for Eye On America.

A comedienne and actress, Kennedy has had some success, including a guest spot on the TV hit Third Rock From The Sun.

She was the first actress in a wheelchair with a regular role on a sitcom, the short-lived Louie Show.

Her humor, often touching on life from a disabled person's point-of-view, masks a hard reality: everything is a struggle. Kennedy couldn't survive without intensive care, frequent doctor visits, and expensive medications, all paid by Medicare and Medicaid.

But by law, if she earns a mere $500 a month for just nine months, she loses it all. This federal life support is cut off. So her big career break could break her.

"Everything I should be happy about getting, every opportunity I should be thrilled about, I'm scared about," Kennedy says.

She was paralyzed in a diving accident 20 years ago. Now, she's paralyzed by the system.

Thousands of disabled Americans are pressing Congress to change the policy. They don't want a free ride. They'd gladly pay what they can afford. They just can't afford all the care they need.

The federal disability policy is rooted in the past, before power wheelchairs, computers and vehicle lifts.

"There's a new kind of disabled person," Kennedy says. "They're active, they want to work as much as they can, they want to pay taxes, they don't want to get welfare."

If she loses her benefits, her only option is to give up - give up her career, her independence, and go to a nursing home at far greater expense to taxpayers.

It's a role that terrifies her.

Life in a nursing home is a future she may face because she couldn't pass up the chance to appear in a Christopher Reeve's television special, even though it took her right up to her work limit.

"You know, my acting teacher told me it's very important that I move on stage because when I do it, makes me seem less paralyzed," she told a laughing audience.

"I just said, 'This is irresistible, because this might turn into a job that would get me away from this for good,'" she says. "So I took it and said, you know, I'm sick of failing."

It seems the system is failing, and until it is changed, Kennedy must gamble whether the next casting call will lead to fame and fortune, or a nursing home.

Reported By Bill Whitaker
  • CBSNews.com staff CBSNews.com staff

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