No Shame: Defending Disability. ~ Ann Nichols

Via Ann Nichols
on Aug 24, 2013
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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


About Ann Nichols

Ann Nichols has been everything from a cellist to a lawyer, and is currently a Buddhist who gets paid to cook at a Protestant church. She lives in a 100-year old house in Michigan with her husband, her son and an improbable number of animals. You can hang out with her by joining the Facebook group “Metta-Morphosis.”


11 Responses to “No Shame: Defending Disability. ~ Ann Nichols”

  1. GabbyAbby says:

    Ann, I've walked this walk on both sides. I don't practice law for money anymore but do volunteer to assist SSi applicants for exactly these reasons. The system is rigged against those that need it most and seemingly grants benefits for those who are not necessarily the "most' deserving. I haven't figured it out and guess I never will, but this one thing I can do. Advocate for those I KNOW need it, and speak up when I hear ignorance, even the innocent kind. Same goes for food stamps and handicapped parking – two more "why are they getting that?" hot topics. I say 'it's nunayourbizness' but you can be sure it wasn't easy!

  2. KathleenH says:

    One wonders what would motivate a person to use so much energy as well as – paper and gas – to be so hurtful to another human being. We certainly need more kindness and compassion in this world.

  3. Thank you for this article and thank you for being such a strong advocate. As a parent of an 8 year old girl with a life threatening illness I can attest to your claims. Nobody understands how hard parents and caregivers have to fight to get what they need even here in Canada. There really isn't any difference between the U.S. and Canadian systems this way. Getting into a program and getting what you need to deliver a high quality of life is tough on both sides of the border. The general public makes assumptions based on media not by their own experience that people with challenges are well cared for. The people that are well cared for are the administrators, doctors, policy makers etc. more so than people in need. Yes this isn't Bangladesh but the system could be way better than it is.

  4. Jeff Koehler says:

    There are a lot of very stupid people here in Portland. Don't be too surprised.

  5. imagineannie says:

    I know that there are lots of folks who apply who should not get benefits, although in all fairness many are required by their employer as a condition of getting Work Comp or by insurance companies if they apply for private disability benefits. Those people often don't meet the legal standards for SSI/SSDI. But when they do, you can't always see it, and you should never assume…….

  6. imagineannie says:


  7. imagineannie says:

    It was better, in the old days. Applicants didn't need attorneys, and the system was less adversarial. Politics got in the way, and Ronald Reagan's administration created the beginning of the current fiasco.

  8. imagineannie says:

    I guess (!) I imagined it all funky cool Portlandia, but apparently there's also bitter vindictive Portalndia.

  9. Terry Adams says:

    People with disability should be treated right. Keep it up!

  10. imagineannie says:

    Thanks, Terry!

  11. Jean says:

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