August 24, 2013

No Shame: Defending Disability. ~ Ann Nichols

It takes a lot to make me angry.

When I read this article about anonymous notices posted in Portland, Oregon threatening to “out” recipients of disability benefits, I got angry.

I used to be a lawyer. For decades, I represented people applying for Social Security benefits. It should tell you something that most people have to hire an attorney to get these benefits, despite the fact that in many cases the client has worked for decades and paid into the system. It’s part of that “FICA” line item on your pay stub, and it’s a contract you make with the federal government that you pay into a risk pool, and if you are disabled you will receive monthly payments.

There are no “cash disability payments” that are easily gotten or easily kept. Not in this country.

What was originally intended to be a social safety net for those who are (by legal definition) “disabled” has become a juggernaut of paperwork, delays and shame. I watched people lose their homes, custody of their children, and their self-esteem while waiting years for a decision. They filled out forms, were often treated like criminals by employees at the Social Security office, and submitted to examinations by “objective” health professionals paid by the government and encouraged to find no disability.

In hearings, required by law to be “non-adversarial,” I watched (purportedly neutral) Administrative Law Judges interrogate people with epilepsy, schizophrenia and closed head injuries about why they couldn’t just do a “simple” job. I fought to prove disability in clients whose impairments were not easily proven with tests or x-rays, like major depression or autism spectrum disorders.

I represented several older men who had performed manual labor for more years than I had been alive, and who, after a third heart attack, or a back surgery, could no longer lift fifty pound piles of shingles and had only a high school education. They were ashamed to apply for benefits, but desperate to support their families.

In all the years I worked, I saw one client trying to “work the system.”

I would have refused to represent them anyway, but that wasn’t necessary—as soon as I described the process, and the fact that it might take three years before they received a check, they lost interest. During those years, two clients died waiting for a decision. Three more died within months of receiving their first few checks.

And one more thing: even if a person gets these objectionable “cash payments,” they are barely enough to live on. If a person receives Social Security Disability Income based on their paid-in earnings, their monthly disability check is maybe two thirds of what they earned when they were working.

Recipients of Supplemental Security Income or “SSI,” those who have never worked or did not pay in enough to receive SSDI receive $710.00 a month. That isn’t enough to pay rent where I live, in a Midwestern college town. The amount received is the same for recipients living

In Manhattan, San Francisco, and other expensive cities. That is the luxurious “free money” decried by the cowardly Portland poster.

Well, and one more “one more thing:” many recipients of disability suffer from psychological impairments. You can’t see them by looking, but they are often the most debilitating, the most likely to be associated with deep shame, and the hardest to “cure.” The population receiving benefits on that basis is the one most likely to be devastated by having their name posted in a public place.

As a lawyer, I don’t see the hate speech theory as holding water against “Artemis of the wildland.” As a human being, I really don’t care if “Artemis” turns out to be a liberal, a conservative, or a member of the Tea Party movement.

My interest is not in getting an eye for an eye, but in creating awareness.

While these posters are a particularly dramatic and horrific example of judging, shaming and encouraging “us” and “them,” their theme is an old one. We all hear stories about “that guy who lives down the street who is getting money for sitting on his ass because he’s supposedly ‘disabled,’ but I saw him mowing his lawn.”

We should challenge those stories. We should suggest, gently, that if “that guy” has PTSD from serving in Iraq, and has unpredictable blackouts and mood swings, he may be able to mow his own lawn but not meet the demands of working 40 hours a week. We might say “you know, I hear it’s pretty hard to get those benefits, even if you’re really sick.”

Please move past mere outrage and into advocacy for those who are weakened and demoralized by physical or mental illness. Use your fine mind, your good heart and your native charm to speak against this cruel, uninformed backwardness any time you can,

Because there, but for the grace of God, goes any of us.

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Assistant Ed: Dana Gornall/Ed: Bryonie Wise

photo credit: Flickr Creative Commons

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