Last week the New York Times reported 106 people were indicted for allegedly defrauding the Social Security Administration by faking psychiatric disabilities to receive benefits. Newsday, the New York Post, the Wall Street Journal … all had stories reporting the same.
Troubled water indeed.
I have no opinion on the veracity of the allegations. I simply don’t know. And I have no way of knowing.
But I do know that many legitimately disabled people will be swept up in these stories of alleged fraud as readers generalize the allegations to include all people, or most people, who receive and need Social Security disability benefits. Honest people will unjustifiably be viewed as frauds too.
I do have an opinion about that.
Human beings’ brains recognize patterns. Our brains generalize. Pattern recognition is part of how we learn, how we order our world. But human brains recognize patterns and generalize … to a fault. The brain sometimes sees patterns where they do not exist, and makes generalizations that are false.
Generalizations … proclamations. We draw the wrong conclusions, and develop strong opinions based on those wrong conclusions.
Gerald M. Edelman, M.D., Ph.D., won the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine for his work (along with Rodney R. Porter) on the immune system in 1972. Dr. Edelman also studied the neural physiology of the human brain giving rise to human consciousness. In his book, Second Nature: Brain science and human knowledge, published in 2006 by Yale University Press, Dr. Edelman wrote,
human brains operate fundamentally in terms of pattern recognition rather than logic. [Pattern recognition] is enormously powerful, but because of the need for range; it carries with it a loss of specificity.”
Does 106 = all? No. 106 ≠ all. 106 doesn’t even = most. Not even close.
Readers of these news stories would do well to rein in their brain’s natural reflexive creation of defective patterns regarding disabled people. Yes, some people commit fraud, but there are many more who are legitimately disabled and who are not committing fraud. Many, many more.
Most applicants and recipients of disability benefits would give anything not to need public benefits. They would rather have the lives they imagined for themselves; lives in which they provide for themselves and their families … lives in which they are accomplished, and favorably acknowledged. Lives in which they are in the game.
Many legitimately disabled people will feel themselves to have been unjustly accused – as if they were among the 106. They will take that hit emotionally. They will cringe when they hear the news.
It is as if I were to feel implicated as a mere bank account holder in a bank that got robbed. The fact that my bank got robbed doesn’t mean I am a bank robber. I am not complicit in any way.
It is important for Social Security’s judges not to get caught up – as a lay person might – in creating defective patterns of mind about disabled people – patterns that would prejudice them in their decision-making.
Although I have seen judges take it on the chin in the press, I have known many who are masters of the art and craft of judging – who can remain fair-minded, continue to learn the applicable law, manage their courtrooms efficiently, and treat the people who come before them with respect. Professionalism is a beautiful thing to behold in any profession, but maybe especially so in the profession of judging.
It is important also for attorneys knowledgeable of the realities of disability and what disabled people face, to continue the important work of advocacy, to commit themselves to providing dignified, competent and lawful bridges over this troubled water ….