“GIVING IS VOLUNTARY, NOT FORCED!” a Facebook friend of a friend shouted in all caps.
“Lawyers and politicians brag they force others to help ….” Fox Business reporter, John Stossel wrote in Longing to Be a Victim.
“OBLIGATED charity is, and should be seen as, theft,” was a comment left on a post at Raptitude.com entitled, “Why should you be forced to help someone else?”
And the more I thought about it … the more I realized … I feel forced to help too.
There. I said it. I feel forced to help too.
When I was accepted into a top-tier law school I fantasized myself onto the sets of L.A. Law … The Practice … Ally McBeal. I wanted the fancy clothes, the shiny shoes. I wanted to say the kinds of things David E. Kelly writes. I wanted to hobnob with hoity toits. I wanted to spend my time in places where even the men get manicures.
I might have been fatigued from eight years of working in a “helping” profession as a sign language interpreter. I remember once a deaf client asking me what I planned to do after law school, and then telling me ‘when you’re a lawyer we expect you to represent disabled people.’ He signed, “we have you.” Translation: We own you. I remember defiantly thinking, ‘z’at so?’
So here we are, you and I … we’re not so different. We both feel forced to help … in different ways and varying degrees.
I like your way of thinking of this … when you say they’re mostly frauds … when you say so-called disabled people are perpetrating a complex con – that’s the way out. I like it.
I see the structure of the argument … the numbers of recipients of Social Security disability are increasing – that seems fishy. We’ve got towns where darn near 20% of the adults there receive disability benefits – again, fishy. We’ve got Eric Conn, allegedly running a disability racket – super fishy. Probably a lot of attorneys are just like that. Lax judges, rushed judges, Social Security may be forcing quotas on judges giving them no choice but to rubber-stamp cases. Doctors might even be in on the scam. Our deadbeat neighbors and relatives in on it, too. The “Disability Industrial Complex” … that sounds whopper fishy.
No longer forced to give. No longer forced to help. No longer forced to look deeply into these tough situations.
Looking deeply is what I most want not to do. I don’t want to look. I don’t want to see and hear … I don’t want to know. I want it to disappear magically.
The summer between my 2nd and 3rd year of law school I interned in the Sex Crimes and Child Abuse Unit of the St. Louis Circuit Attorney’s Office. There I saw photographed corpses of babies and children whose deaths were under investigation. I very much did not want to look at those photographs. I did not want to see. I did not want to know. But I looked, reasoning that if children were enduring this, I owed it to them not to look away.
When I meet potential new clients, at first glance, it is not clear that they are “disabled” – by the strict legal definition used by the Social Security Administration. They walk in the door, say hello, shake my hand … seem pretty normal to me.
Lawyers make people nervous. My clients try to impress me with how together they are, nonetheless they manifest behaviors that belie their confusion, disorganization, inability to focus and to understand even very simple concepts and instructions. These attributes endorse their inability to function in work environments where the abilities to stay on task, keep pace, and produce without the need for special supervision or excessive breaks, are required. (Those are the requirements for most jobs, especially unskilled jobs where employers do not tolerate unproductive attributes in workers who lack skills.)
But, you can well-imagine, these attributes do not inspire understanding and compassion in most people. Not even me. Plodding slowness, confusion, disorganization, rudeness, body odor … those kinds of qualities engender disdain, harshness … mercilessness in most people. And in me too.
I am busy, lack patience … and frequently battle to contain my frustrations. This is not an easy clientele. For me, it takes a great deal of self-control consistently to be pleasant when someone cannot tell me basic information I need and cannot get from any other source. I am creeped out when I have to rummage through soiled papers to find information. I must manage my emotions as I explain and re-explain and re-explain and re-explain and re-explain and re-explain and re-explain and re-explain and re-explain basic information.
A law student whose internship I supervised asked me, “now, why do I have to explain complex legal principles to retarded people?”
I avoid telling client stories for three reasons. First, attorney-client privilege. Second, I fear you will think I am making this stuff up. Third, I still have ringing in my ears my friend John Schobel’s voice yelling at me, “WHY DID YOU TELL ME THAT STORY?!?!? I will NEVER be able to get that out of my head!”
Remember the Saturday Night Live character, Debbie Downer? Her theme song goes …
You’re enjoying your day
Everything’s going your way
Then along comes Debbie Downer
Always there to tell you ’bout a new disease
A car accident, or killer bees
You’ll beg her to spare you, ‘Debbie, please!’
But you can’t stop Debbie Downer!
I am Debbie Downer! I stuff a sock in her mouth in social settings, but the stories run around in my head incessantly.
My client gave me permission to tell her story. She enjoyed renaming herself Ramona for the telling.
Ramona is not overtly impressive. She is white, overweight, and affects the demeanor of a child giggling and, in response to simple questions, launching into disjointed, fanciful stories that go bloody nowhere. A friend has allowed her to live in his basement for several years because she has nowhere else to go.
I was relieved to find among her belongings a Social Security disk containing her file to explain what was going on in her case. She had been denied benefits in 2009, 2010, and 2011. The denial in 2011 listed her impairments as “fibromyalgia, obesity, pain disorder associated with both psychological factors and a general medical condition, and a personality disorder.” When I looked through the evidence, the judge had disregarded, without explanation, a valid IQ score which showed her Full Scale IQ is 66, indicating “extremely low intellectual functioning.”
In our first meeting, Ramona claimed to have finished 9th grade. I routinely request school records to verify educational information, and learned Ramona finished only the 4th grade, and sporadically attended the 5th before quitting altogether.
I asked her about the discrepancy and she said she hadn’t realized she dropped out that soon … she thought she’d gone to school longer. She explained she was being taken out of school a lot by her father to … uh … um … … she’s trying to decide whether to trust me, and decides not to and says … “to babysit my siblings ….”
She’s a terrible liar.
“Ramona … babysitting?”
She changes her mind about trusting me, and with some hesitations and long pauses, divulges a chaotic story in which her father kept her home as a sex toy, forced her and her siblings to have sex with each other while he watched, and gave her away to a friend of his to take home with him.
She said, “I remember going off with him on his motorcycle … I was wearing a bathing suit. He would take me swimming, and then … well, you can imagine ….”
As a very young girl, Ramona remembers her father giving her a lot of drugs, including having her “huff” toluene so that she was a more … willing participant.
You’re enjoying your day
Everything’s going your way
Then along comes Debbie Dunk Tank!
“Do you have any evidence? I asked, not expecting there would be any. There almost never is. But, Ramona said “yes,” and within a few days brought me a sizeable box containing stacks of depositions, and trial transcripts from her father’s criminal trial.
I read the transcripts alone at home in the evenings with a good, stiff drink. Just awful stuff.
Ramona’s father was found guilty of being a “sexually violent predator” and died in prison. Ramona was relieved when she heard of it.
After learning Ramona’s big secret, she was more forthcoming with information. She had been seeing a counselor and psychiatrist who were treating her for post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety. She had not told me or Social Security about those caregivers, or those disorders – fairly typical behavior for people who are ashamed of their symptoms and resist divulging them.
I was able to submit ample evidence documenting significant symptomology of post-traumatic stress disorder, mild mental retardation, as well as the fibromyalgia, and finally, obtain disability benefits for Ramona. Her benefits will help her move out of her friend’s basement, and live, finally, a more dignified life. This after three times being denied by Social Security.
Where are all those lax judges? I have not encountered them. You have to prove these cases … in court … with evidence … carrying your burden. And it ain’t easy.
I do feel forced to help. But I am proud to do it.
It is not fun to look deeply into these situations, and into the realities of disabled people’s lives, but we, as a society, owe it to disabled people not to look away because it is uncomfortable … because it hurts us.
We owe it to ourselves not to fall for the fictional narrative that the numbers of recipients of Social Security disability are increasing because of fraud when it has been shown conclusively by Social Security’s Chief Actuary that the numbers have increased largely because of the swell of Baby Boomers reaching their disability-prone years. It’s a tight little narrative, and if we believe it, it gives us an easy out … … but it is false.
These are our tax dollars hard at work. I do not brag that I have forced anyone to help by paying their taxes, but I appreciate that people do. And I appreciate the work that the Social Security Administration does to support our neediest people.
Together we create a more just and civilized society whether we do so while feeling forced or whether we do so willingly. Or … a little bit of both.