The process of obtaining Social Security disablity benefits is soul-depleting.
To be awarded disability benefits, claimants must disclose their entire medical file to the Social Security Administration, and must prove an inability to perform any job whatsoever on a sustained basis, in a competitive workplace, no matter how simple and undemanding the job might be. Moreover, this impairment-related inability must have lasted at least one year.
Most people find the process positively humiliating. It is demeaning to stand before a court and admit that you are, in the words of a client, “a huge loser.” The process affords little opportunity to save face.
The vast majority of claimants come to the process after having tried absolutely everything to avoid it. Many have exhausted their sick leave, their savings and retirement accounts, and the good will and charity of their families before even making the application. And, after having put off making the application for as long as possible, they discover the process can take many, many years before they are granted benefits – if granted benefits at all.
Having delayed applying until already financially depleted, claimants court homelessness, and often become homeless. They “couch surf” with friends and relatives, straining those relationships often beyond repair. The most fortunate of claimants wind up in thrown-together apartments in the basements, or garages, of friends or family. When someone has no family, they fare much, much worse.
One client without the benefit of a family to take her in, lived “down by the river.” She came to me excited one day because she had found an old bike frame thrown out, and she had dragged her sleeping mat onto it so that the mat was off the ground and didn’t draw up moisture. I couldn’t imagine how uncomfortable it would be to sleep on top of a bike frame, but for her it was a home improvement that delighted!
For all the years I have observed people trying to keep body and soul together while waiting for a favorable resolution to a disability case, I have yet to understand how they live on absolutely no money at all – sometimes for two, three, five … years. They ask, “what am I going to do?” I have no answer.
There seem to be different strategies for managing pennilessness, depending on how well-off one is to start. Once any savings are drained, the retirement funds go next, then selling automobiles, furniture, personal effects, usually selling the family home, or losing it to foreclosure, borrowing from family-members, and friends, moving in with relatives, applying for food stamps, for Unemployment Benefits, going to food pantries, sleeping in parks, knocking on the doors of churches ….
It is humiliating.
This is the reality of disabilty.
The myth of disability is that it is easy to obtain, and rife with mildly-impaired scammers. For that myth to persist, one cannot know how long it takes to get disability, the personal information you have to divulge to the Social Security Administration, how hard it is to prove, and how absolutely difficult life is for the years during which a case is pending. Also, for the myth to persist, one cannot realize how little the financial gain is on the other end.
Claimants insist to me they are not “one of those scammers,” but, in fact, “really need this.” The need to differentiate themselves from the negative mythos of disability is very real.
Despite the fact that disabled people want others to conclude they’re not “one of those scammers,” they will not fully divulge the medical problems, and functional deficits they have that cause them to need disability benefits. They minimize their diagnoses, symptomology, and functional deficits because … it’s fantastically embarrassing not to do so.
Wouldn’t you do the same … if I were to ask you, “what’s wrong with you?”
It is nearly impossible to save face in the process of proving disability, but people naturally try to save face as much as possible outside of the official process – in what they say to friends, neighbors, even their doctors … and definitely reporters.
A National Public Radio / Planet Money story done by Chana Joffe-Walt airing in March of 2013 on All Things Considered and This American Life missed this fact about human nature. Ms. Joffe-Walt took as fact things said as if their being said made them true. She failed to burrow down into the facts, even by doing something as basic as reading an actual decision or two written by Social Security judges, to make sure that what she was reporting was the truth.
Ms. Joffe-Walt interviewed a retired judge, Sonny Ryan (not a Social Security Administrative Law Judge) who said he’d asked a man in his courtroom why he was on disability. The man claimed he was on disability for high blood pressure and diabetes. Ms. Joffe-Walt, just left it there – as though it was true … that a man was receiving Social Security disability benefits only for hypertension and diabetes. It must be true – a former judge seemed satisfied with the answer, right? I guess that’s why Ms. Joffe-Walt didn’t find the actual man, read his favorable decision, to see if it was actually true. If she had, she would have learned that he was not receiving disability benefits for hypertension and diabetes. There’s no way he was on for hypertension and diabetes. I will grant that he likely said he was on for hypertension and diabetes … but he was not. I would bet the title of my truck on it.
Instead of journalism about the disability program, and the people receiving disability benefits, the listeners of Planet Money, All Things Considered and This American Life got mere speculation … gossip really, cocktail-party banter – misleading and inaccurate – in a week-long, long-form series, no less. National Public Radio has not retracted the story, nor aired anything on the subject more thoroughly investigated.
It is common for disabled people when asked why they are on disability to reveal only the least embarrassing ailments to explain it. So the explanation is about the bad back, the bum knee, the diabetes, the hypertension, but carefully excludes the truth of the cognitive impairment, the severe fecal incontinence resulting from a prior bowel resection, or the debilitating panic disorder.
I once represented a person who was mildly mentally retarded, and had an anxiety disorder – likely from being relentlessly bullied while in school for being “slow.” Despite those challenges, she had an impressive work history having worked for decades as a cook, a job that required frequent heavy lifting of water-filled pots. She suffered a serious crush-injury to a hand that required numerous surgeries. At the end of all the surgeries, and rehab, the hand remained functionally inadequate to the task of lifting water-filled pots; she was unable to do her past jobs. Then, in middle age, and with significant cognitive deficits, she was unable to transition to sedentary work. After two failed applications for disability benefits, and several years of trying, she was finally found disabled, and granted benefits. She was finally, and mercifully, off the streets and safe.
If you were to ask this person the reason for being on disability, she would tell you it was her hand. And she would be wrong. The injury to her hand alone is not disabling. The mental retardation alone is not disabling. But, in combination, these things were disabling.
But in the telling of her story, she would have left out the detail about the cognitive impairment. In fact, she would do everything in her power not to reveal that to people – naturally. She told me, “I keep my head down.”
The Chana Joffe-Walt’s of the world, and presumably her listeners, would hear that this woman was disabled merely because of an injured hand, and would think the injury did not warrant disability benefits. And they would be right.
And without any further inquiry into whether that was the whole story … the myth … would persist.