Recently an attorney-friend said, “not long ago, when I told people I represented disabled people – helping them to obtain Social Security disability benefits – I was met with admiration and kudos for helping vulnerable people … for being one of the ‘good guys.’ But not anymore. Now I’m as likely to encounter an uncomfortable silence, or an expression of disdain, an uncomfortable, ‘oh,’ or even outright derision.
Social Security disability attorneys have stood still, and public opinion has shifted 180° around them.
Standing in the center of this negative whirl are attorneys, Administrative Law Judges, the Social Security Administration itself, and … disabled people. We stand together.
The problem that disabled people have not being able to fend for themselves in the competitive economy is not only a personal problem, it is one that affects nuclear and extended families, communities, society, and the nation as a whole. Disability has a ripple effect that first and most drastically devastates the person, then the family, and then dissipates as the circle widens, but still negatively impacts the wider community, including school systems, society and the nation.
Standing at a distance from people who are disabled, it is common to hold the opinion that their maladies are not real, their claims are fraudulent, their problems can be wished away. Standing at a distance from people who are disabled, it is common to hold the opinion that the attorneys who help them obtain Social Security disability benefits are aiding and abetting a fraud … that the judges who grant the benefits are lax, incompetent fools.
But standing close in … the picture of disability becomes sharply focused. Disabled people, their attorneys, and the Social Security Administration are understood quite differently when viewed up close and personal.
Up close and personal you see that disabled people have tried everything in their power to succeed, but they have been unable to do so.
Up close and personal you see that families with disabled family members struggle financially, and you see the heart-breaking decisions families are faced with that funnel their resources of money, time and emotion into the disabled person, leaving non-disabled family members wanting.
Up close and personal you see that the all-important safety net of family is small, and often inadequate to the task of supporting disabled family members. And, up close and personal, you see that family needs support from community and from society.
Numerous times I have seen an individual shift position from thinking that the Social Security disability program is a poorly administered, bogus, mass-deception to understanding its value, and seeing its necessity as a national safety net that is much, much too hard to obtain.
This 180° shift happens pretty much on cue when a person suffers a traumatic injury; when they go from able-bodied to disabled – quickly.
Disability can happen to anyone … at any time.
My client had been a hard-working, affluent, white-collar, upwardly mobile, family man. He and his wife did everything right. They followed all the rules. When he was injured in a car accident, fracturing his pelvis, and damaging two discs/vertebrae in the lumbar-region of his spine, everything changed.
There were two failed back surgeries, a few years of chronic pain + more pain … immobility … weight gain … the pain-killing medications lost effectiveness … more pain … depression (of course) … despair. My client’s wife worked full-time, but they could not afford their house on one salary. They sold the house at a loss, and moved into an apartment, uprooting their children from schools, and friends.
My client came to me already having been denied benefits by Social Security. His appeal period had lapsed, and he needed to reapply. When Social Security denied the second application, he confessed his desperation to me, but not to his wife. He said he lay in bed most days planning a suicide that would likely be viewed as an accident so his wife would receive his life insurance.
He said, “I never understood this before. I never understood how precarious we all are. How much anybody can wind up needing these benefits.” He said, “I used to watch Fox News all the time listening to them accusing damn near every disabled person of faking. Now I feel like they’re talking about me. And I know they’re talking about you! And they have no idea what they’re talking about. I know that now.”
Up close the “situation” of a disability looks very different, and so do the cast of characters – the disabled people, the judges, the lawyers.
I am uneasy that people are more likely now than before to have a negative opinion of me and my colleagues, of our work, and of the people we represent. But we know who we are. And, we know what we’re doing. We stand with people who lack economic and political power. We stand with the families of disabled people who need our help, and need the help of society, and we take on their cause of obtaining that help.
I would like to fancy myself fighting for the poor and disenfranchised among the elite attorneys in history. Attorneys who were truly persecuted. Attorneys whose civil disobedience changed the course of history. Nelson Mandela, for example, and his law partner Oliver Tambo were frequently prevented from traveling, forced to prove their professional status just to appear and speak in court, faced threats of disbarment because of their political activities, prohibited from gatherings, prosecuted and jailed. They represented truly disenfranchised citizens in the context of unjust laws that afforded them few effective arguments.
I would like to pretend myself into that class of attorney, but in our time and place, we are not persecuted. People who don’t know any better think and say bad things about us – and sometimes to us. Okay. We can stand up to that.
In our time and place, it is not necessary for us flagrantly to disobey unjust laws. Civil disobedience is unnecessary. Our rebellions are far less dramatic inasmuch as they are compliant and decidedly obedient to an essentially just and proper law – 42 U.S.C., Titles II and XVI. Ho hum.
As such, we toil away in oblivion. Uncelebrated and unknown to the ages. But we know who we are. And, we know what we’re doing. We stand with people who lack economic and political power … people who are sometimes viewed with disdain. We stand with their families, and we take on their problems.
A quiet, obedient, lawful rebellion much appreciated by our disabled clients, by their families, and – when they understand it – by society.