A Master Sommelier of … disabilities

Man tasting a glass of red wineTo become a Master Sommelier through the famed Court of Master Sommeliers one must pass four levels of course work and examinations on theories of wine and spirits composition and production, must be able to perform hair-splitting analyses of complex wines and spirits by vision, smell and taste; must be able to identify wines in blind tastings, and be able properly to pair food, wine and spirits … all while maintaining proper “demeanor of the professional sommelier.”

The pass rate for the Master Sommelier examination is approximately 10%.  Smiling winemaker in cellar looking satisfied at a glass of whitOnly 211 people have been conferred with the title since 1977 when the Court was established.

To become a Master Sommelier of … disabilities I spent five years becoming fluent in American Sign Language and its variants.  This involved both course work and immersion into deaf communities and culture – attending deaf storytelling slams, and studying mime and deaf theater.

I learned that Alexander Graham Bell, the son of a deaf mother and husband to a deaf woman, was proficient in sign language and taught deaf children.   Bell’s work was shaped by his desire to penetrate and dispel the isolation caused by deafness, and it is theorized that the telephone was Bell’s failed attempt at developing a hearing aid.

I learned the rich history of the disability rights movement in the United States that paved the way for the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and the Americans With Disabilities Act.

ProtestDisabled people fought for inclusion and access and for the elimination of arbitrary barriers.    They fought for the eradication of architectural and physical barriers, and the elimination of communication barriers.   They fought for curb cuts, ramps, accessible bathrooms.  Disabled people asked that information be printed in Braille, that spoken information be interpreted into sign language, and rendered in closed captioning.   Disabled people fought not to be institutionalized but instead to be able to maintain themselves in their own homes.   Disabled people fought hard for equal opportunities in education, public accommodations, housing, and the workplace.

In 1977, disabled people held a twenty-five day sit-in, occupying U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare buildings in Washington, D.C., and San Francisco successfully achieving their goal of the passage of  regulations that strengthened the Rehab Act.images[3]

There are Disability Pride Parades where disabled people show the world they are loud and proud!  The next to be held in Chicago, July 19th, 2014.

In 1990, when the Americans With Disabilities Act became law, my practice as a sign language interpreter flourished.  I was a “reasonable accommodation” and interpreted in educational, medical, government, business, and cultural settings.

NEWARK - NOVEMBER 9: Singer Gladys Knight performs for the 9th AI interpreted for Gladys Knight and the Pips, Colin Powell, Elie Wiesel, Barbara Jordan, Jonathan Kozol, Angela Davis, bell hooks, Newt Gingrich, music festivals … for blues diva, Kim Massie …  for comedians, among them, Kate Clinton ….  I interpreted for deaf-blind clients and knew a deaf couple who knew Helen Keller.

As an interpreter, my deaf clients were mostly achieving in school, andimages[6] professionally.   These deaf students were in undergraduate and graduate programs – they majored in biology, pre-med, law enforcement, graphic design, architecture, law – just to name a few.  I traveled in Spain and France interpreting courses for a deaf student studying abroad.   (That assignment showed me that deaf folks often feel no less at home in a foreign country where they can’t understand the language than they do in their native land where they also have difficulties with spoken language.)

imagesX401D8Y4I interpreted at Ralston-Purina, AT&T, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, the National Personnel Records Center … job interviews, employee evaluations, business meetings, trainings of every variety.   Deaf workers were dedicated, valued workers.

I interpreted a speech at a conference on disabled people’s interests in which the speaker made the most interesting and cogent Young successful businessman jumping over gap. Risk and challengargument that ALL people are accommodated.   She estimated the cost of the roomful of chairs that cost the hotel many thousands of dollars.   But she, and the others in wheel-chairs, had brought their own.   They did not need the provision of chairs.   She went on to point out that the expensive, state-of-the-art sound system was an accommodation for hearing people … the lighting … an accommodation for the sighted.

And this is what I knew of disabilities and of people with disabilities.

Disabled people were accomplished, successful, connected, and proud.   They did not walk around in a state of shame, hat in hand.

One deaf friend of mine Deaf Persons Hand Demonstratingexclaimed he was thrilled to be born deaf when he was (1964) because there had been a German Measles epidemic during that time causing many babies to be born deaf.   He appreciated having so many deaf friends … and courting so many pretty deaf girls!

Disabled people needed an accommodation here and there, but then so did we all … it was all part of a continuum of abilities and disabilities that required accommodation in one way or another.

Being disabled wasn’t a big deal.

That is what I thought.

I have since learned that being disabled enough to be eligible for Social Security disability benefits is a big deal.

I have never known a disabled person applying for, or receiving, Social Security Unfortunate man portraitdisability benefits to describe themselves as proud, or to say they are happy to be in their spot.  They are mostly ashamed … desperate … and isolated.

When disability is defined as the “inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity …” – the legal definition in Social Security’s statute – that is quite a harsher, and more desperate definition of “disability” than would fit the loud and proud – and working – disabled, in other words, the disabled people contemplated in the Americans With Disabilities Act.

Although there is one word, “disabled” there are a variety of meanings and levels of severity it describes.

The Social Security definition of “disability” requires an inability to do any job at all on a sustained, full-time basis.   This version of “disability” describes a person who has little or no economic value in the market place, and who cannot support him or herself.

But the definition of “disability” in the Americans With Disabilities Act describes a person who possesses merely a “physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities …” but not necessarily a person who is unable to sustain a job on a full-time basis.   Indeed, the Americans With Disabilities Act contemplates that people meeting its definition can assert “reasonable accommodations” so their chances of success and achievement in the workplace are optimized.

Achievement and success of disabled people is largely the goal of the Americans With Disabilities Act.   But Social Security disability is meant to provide financial subsistence for people who cannot economically be in the game.

One word, two completely different circumstances.

As an interpreter, I had drunk plenty of the wine of disability, and alcohol drinks set isolated on a blackthought I knew what disability was … until I took a taste of the hard liquor of disability that defines the people for whom the Social Security disability statute is intended.

These different categories of “disability” are as different as a crisp chardonnay with pear-apple overtones is to an oak-y bourbon with a caramel afterglow.

Even disabled people have difficulty understanding the gradations of disabilities.  

I have seen deaf people say, “get a job!” in exasperation at disabled people who need the financial supports of Social Security disability.

Even disabled people have difficulty understanding that when a disability such as deafness is coupled with a cognitive impairment or a mental disorder or another physical impairment … the coupling is devastating.   The aggregating of disabilities one on top of the other is a state from which a person cannot often rise to productivity and self-support – no matter the accommodations.

From my vantage point, I see the disabled people I represent before the Social Security Administration as being the most disabled people I have ever encountered.

They are largely isolated from the disability rights movement, estranged from other disabled people, and what’s more … attacked from an endless barrage of criticism from an uninformed public that says, essentially, “why can’t you be like those good disabled people?!?”

Conference RoomAs a non-disabled person, I do not feel guilty that a hotel conference center provides me the accommodation of a chair, or a sound system, or light.   It has never occurred to me even really to appreciate it particularly.   I take it for granted.

Disabled people who require the financial supports of Social Security disability benefits, should similarly not feel shame … nor should they be shamed.   The fact that severely disabled people cannot make it in the work place speaks in part to the severity of their disability, but also to the harsh, Celebration. Hands holding the glasses of champagne and wine makcompetitiveness of the American work place.

Not being able to work in the competitive work force might be the measure of economic value, but it is not the measure of human value.

Let us raise our glass to that!


9 thoughts on “A Master Sommelier of … disabilities

  1. Anonymous

    In a criminal case, the burden is on the State to prove guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt.” The Defendnat’s attorney does not need to make an argument if the State is not able to prove this. This is a different and tougher standard from a civil matter, a disability claim. The U.S. Constitution supports this.

  2. Laura Hernandez

    I agree with People Helper. Anonymous – some of your responses are incoherent run-on sentences. You are also comparing apples to oranges when comparing the criminal world with the world of social security disability. And, your tone is condescending and judgmental. This blogger’s writings demonstrate a keen understanding of the Social Security disability program, the claimants, the lawyers, and the ALJ’s involved. Her posts hardly suggest she is a “moral authority” or picking easy cases. To the contrary, her writings demonstrate an extraordinary dedication to understanding the nuances of social security disability law and the complexities involved in representing disabled people who suffer different levels of illness severity.

  3. People Helper

    To Anon 11:01,

    I think I see what you are getting at, and maybe this will help explain how most lawyers view it. When I review a case, my first basic screen is to ask “If what this person says about their limitations are true, could they meet the SSA disability standard?” I also consider what I observe and any preliminary documentation. If the answer is “no” then I would be doing that client, myself, and the public a disservice by pursuing that claim. I might also be violating SSA and ethical rules of conduct.

    If I believe the answer is “yes” it comes down to whether I can prove what they say about their limitations that would meet the disability standard. That involves due diligence. I get and review the medical records. I request reports on relevant issues from treating physicians. Then I consider whether I can prove it. Some cases will depend on whether I can convince the adjudicator that the client’s symptoms are as bad as reported. These can go either way, but I will take those if I have some competent evidence to back it up. If I don’t have it, then I am again doing the client, myself, and the public a disservice by pursuing that claim.

    There seems to be some perception that a lawyer who can win a case for a client without a legitimate claim is somehow a great lawyer. On the contrary, any lawyer doing that is not only deceiving and abusing the system, but also themselves. Their reputation and credibility will quickly dive to zero once it’s known that they pursue meritless claims. It’s true that the civil and criminal systems are different here, as even the guilty in criminal cases have the right to a defense, and to force the state to prove its case. That does NOT translate to a civil litigant having the right to pursue a meritless claim without consequence. Any lawyer who knowingly assists a client in doing that is a morally challenged fool, in my opinion.

  4. Anonymous

    I enjoy your writing, but I respectfully suggest that you are going way overboard bestowing yourself the title of “Master Sommelier of Disabilities,” even if you’re joking about it. The reason for that opinion? I think you’re too hung up on the definition that Social Security has of disability. And the people you describe in your writing always seem to strike me as easily meeting that definition; they just can’t meet it without a lawyers help because they’re too weak to do so. Those are easy cases. The tough cases are the people who believe and feel they are disabled by their mental disabilities, but the rest of the world doesn’t see those disabilities. How many people commit suicide and nobody saw it coming? The world can’t see inside these people’s heads and therefore doesn’t see how exhausted they are to just accomplish daily tasks that merely sustain life each day. When you battle each day to find the mental energy to brush your teeth, or take a shower, you have a serious problem. Medication can’t fix that problem, at best it can only mask it. So let’s strip away the pictures of wheelchairs and mental images of deaf people and stick with the really tough stuff as you mentioned finally in the end of the piece. But to the final point: if you want to be called a “Master Sommelier of Disabilities,” then you have to not only take, but also win the cases where even you don’t think the person is disabled. And part of your Sommelier test would be that you never waiver and never judge the person throughout the entire process, or after.

    1. disabilitydunktank Post author

      Anonymous – We agree.
      Most of the people coming to me with very, very serious mental illnesses, huge suicidal ideation, et cetera WERE NOT SPEAKING OF IT TO ANYONE – even their psychiatrists who are treating them. I am mostly told that this is because they do not want to be hospitalized.
      Initially many seriously mentally ill clients initially call, and when I ask them why they think they need disability benefits, why they can’t work, et cetera – they tell me about their bad backs, and bum knees. I ask: anything else? They mostly say: “no.” It is only when I inquire into the medications they’re taking that I find the anti-depressant, anti-anxiety, and anti-psychotic medications they are prescribed. They did not tell me about their suicidal ideation, their hallucinations, et cetera.
      They also had not told the other attorneys they contacted, who then rejected them as clients. They did not tell Social Security about their suicidal ideation, who denied them properly based on the evidence Social Security had.
      People do not easily admit to having mental illnesses and/or weaknesses. There is soooo much stigma with mental illness, and most folks are loathe to admit to it – even to themselves. It takes digging down with a client and showing them that there are lots of jobs they could do if, in fact, they only have a bad back and a bum knee. When I can get a person to see that, then he or she – if they really cannot work – have to start admitting to the other things that are much, much more devastating to employment, i.e., the mental incapacities, for example, the inability to focus/concentrate because of preoccupation with pain.
      I often feel like the first fight I have on my hands as an attorney in proving a disability case is to have the client, him or herself, finally start admitting to their true situation.
      I disagree that, as an attorney, I am supposed to win cases where I don’t think the person is disabled. After digging down with a potential client, I do sometimes (usually in tandem with the potential client) realize that he or she does not meet the rules, i.e., he or she can work. There is a good deal of confusion about what the definition of disability is, and a substantial number of people think it is only that they can no longer do their last job. I believe it is properly the attorney’s job to filter out those cases, inform claimants about the law, et cetera. BUT, I agree that many attorneys are very quick to assume that disabled people do NOT meet the rules because they do not dig into what the potential client is NOT telling them.
      The title is just supposed to be catchy and position an idea about differentiating like things, i.e., wines or disabilities. I am a Master Sommelier of NOTHING! But I have found it entertaining that the Master Sommelier post has been re-tweeted by wine enthusiasts who obviously did not read the post!

      1. Anonymous

        Nice rebuttal, but…

        “I disagree that, as an attorney, I am supposed to win cases where the I don’t think the person is disabled.”

        That’s not the role of an attorney. Maybe you need to start treating this from a criminal law perspective. If the client says they are innocent (disabled), then it’s your job to know the nuances of the wine (the law), and win their case by exercising superior knowledge and tactics that only a master could muster.

        Somebody who takes disabled people that can’t find the courthouse after they get off the bus downtown and gets them disability is an “advocate.” Somebody who doesn’t judge and wins the disability cases of the O.J Simpson’s of the disabled world (the ones everyone claims is a fraud) is a lawyer and Master Sommelier of the Disabled.

          1. Anonymous

            And I disagree as well. If you walk into my cell, listen to the facts of the case, then proclaim that you too also believe I killed my wife, and further proclaim that as a result of that you are not going to represent me, then what does that have to do with being a lawyer?

            By what you’re saying, you are cherry picking cases that you think you can win. As a disabled person, I have a right to get to the judge, not be judged by the lawyer before I ever get in the courthouse.

            If you’re going to be a moral authority and judge who’s disabled, then those big law firms on TV that offer to represent anyone, and who are despised by other lawyers, truly have a place in this world.

            What I am hearing is if I can’t convince you that I am disabled, you won’t be my lawyer. Can you at least offer to make me pay you if you feel I don’t have a case that’s going to get you paid, and at least allow me to get to the courthouse and have the judge tell me that?

          2. disabilitydunktank Post author


            You asked, “What I am hearing is if I can’t convince you that I am disabled, you won’t be my lawyer. Can you at least offer to make me pay you if you feel I don’t have a case that’s going to get you paid, and at least allow me to get to the courthouse and have the judge tell me that?”

            Yes, if I am convinced a person does not meet Social Security’s definition of disability, I would not represent. That is right. But, a claimant of Social Security disability benefits does not need an attorney to have his/her day in court.

            The criminal law context is very different than civil contexts in many ways. One way is that when a criminal defendant is prosecuted, he or she has no choice about being a litigant. A criminal defendant is on the other side of the “v,” (State v. Defendant). A criminal defendant has a right to an attorney. A criminal defendant has constitutional and due process rights to be upheld, etc. But even in a criminal context attorneys are barred from suborning perjury, a criminal attorney under some circumstances may even be ethically required to withdraw. A criminal defendant doesn’t have a right to a particular attorney.

            In the context of representing a claimant of Social Security benefits who I – after due diligence – believe not to be disabled, it is proper for me not to represent that claimant. Professionally, I could be on thin ice because I cannot, according to the professional ethics governing attorneys, assist a client in committing fraud. Also, I am just not personally going to take a case I truly believe lacks merit.

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