Tag Archives: Planet Money

Pssst … … …

bigstock-Beautiful-business-woman-point-21138083I got a secret I just gotta tell.    I got the lowdown on how it go down.

If you want to avoid becoming “disabled” … legally disabled – be born with some wicked-awesome talent if you can, or develop mad skills, mad useful skills – singing is good, funny is good, be able consistently to throw a 100-mph fastball ….   Last ditch option, get an education.   The more letters you get behind your name, the better.   Or be a successful entrepreneur.

You can have an awe …ful lot wrong with your body, and even your mind … make mistakes here and there … … give folks extraordinarily bad attitude … but if you’re skilled, you’re unlikely to be shown the door.   Especially if you own the door.  Even with your migraines, your flatulence, your bad attitude, and your gimpy-ole self, you’ll still be sitting at the grown ups table economically speaking if you had the foresight to get talented, skilled or educated.

That’s how it works.

If you didn’t manage to accomplish any of the above … the rules for you are different.  You’re a Doughnutsdime a dozen, and if you step out of line – show up late, miss work for doctors’ appointments, can’t manage pieces of your job, have a bad attitude – you’re quickly and unceremoniously – replaced.   Buh bye.

There is a relationship between skills and what employers will tolerate.   So, highly talented, skilled or credentialed folks have a lot of leeway.   Unskilled folks?   Uh … no.

That’s why 30 Rock‘s Liz Lemon has to put up with the insufferable Jenna Maroney, and the unprofessional Tracy Jordan – they’re the talent.  That’s why Jack Donaghy can always have a drink in his hand – he’s the boss.   And, it’s why the lowly Page, Kenneth Parcell‘s quirks are all about the ridiculously high service he provides – otherwise, buh bye sweet Kenneth.

LOS ANGELES - APR 29:  Jack McBrayer arrives to the Anti-BullyinIn comic writing, if the lowly Page was the screw-up and he was not disciplined or fired, it would be a device used to show that the organization or the boss is idiotic.

In real life, bosses are not idiots.   Okay fine your boss is an idiot … but most bosses are not, and most businesses are not.  And they don’t readily accommodate unskilled or low-skilled workers who don’t just keep their heads down and produce … consistently – keeping pace, and not causing problems.

If, for some inexplicable reason, you do not regularly partake of the genius of Tina Fey and 30 Rock, and need bigstock-Nerd-crazy-scientist-man-portr-44215624examples from real life … this is how we get the absent-minded professor, the mad scientist, Dr. Gregory House, or … Robert Downey, Jr.

Chana Joffe-Walt, of Planet Money said in her poorly considered piece Trends With Benefits that aired on National Public Radio’s All Things Considered and This American Life that the definition of “disability” is “squishy.”

“Squishy enough that you can end up with one person with high blood pressure who’s labeled disabled and another who’s labeled judge.”   Ms. Joffe-Walt concluded that “[w]hen it comes down to it, all disability is is the label we as a society give to people who, when we hear their story, we decide they’ve suffered enough, and it’s not fair to make them work anymore.”

Huh?   That’s what Ms. Joffe Walt Surprised / shocked face expression of woman. Surprise and shockconcluded about the meaning of “disability?”  Really?

Joffe-Walt’s conclusion reminds me of the Miss Teen USA Pageant contestant who said, in response to the question, “[r]ecent polls have shown a fifth of Americans can’t locate the U.S. on a world map.  Why do you think this is?”   The contestant responded with,

“I personally believe that U.S. Americans are unable to do so because, uh … some people out there in our nation don’t have maps and uh … I believe that our education like … such as in South Africa and, uh … the Iraq … everywhere like … such as, and, I believe that they should … our education over here in the U.S. should help the U.S., uh, or, uh … should help South Africa and should help Iraq … and the Asian countries, so we will be able to build up our future … for the children.”

But, in Miss South Carolina’s defense, she was just 18 years old, was asked the question cold, under enormous pressure … cameras and white-hot lights on her – and since has redeemed herself to great comic effect.   Also, given a few days to reconsider her answer said,

“well, personally, my friends and I, we know exactly where the United States is on a map.  I don’t know anyone else who doesn’t.  And if the statistics are correct, I believe that there should be more emphasis on geography in our education so people will learn how to read maps better.”

But, Ms. Joffe-Walt claims to have researched Trends With Benefits for what was billed as a “six-month-long obsession with our nation’s disability programs.”   And … has not corrected any of the misinformation in the piece.   Wow.

Ms. Joffe-Walt went on to describe her editor who “has a herniated disc, and he works bigstock-Businessman-lying-on-sofa-with-47108581harder than anyone I know.”

Yes, Ms. Joffe-Walt, but he can take unscheduled breaks, and no one freaks out if he has a steroid injection in L4-L5 and either takes a day off or works while lying down on a couch … a couch he has in his office.   In fact, people would applaud him, for being at work at all – “he works harder than anyone I know!” the Planet Money team would gush!   But he would not have to lift, he would not have to stand, he would not be maneuvering a transmission into a Chevrolet ….   He has skills that utilize his brain … not his brawn, and he has skills that afford him unquestioned accommodations.

Whereas, a stocker in a big box store with a herniated disc and sciatica, would not be able to lie You're Fired - Pink Slip In Envelopedown for half her shift, refuse to lift anything over 5 lbs, and be short-fused with the customers.  She would be replaced – immediately.   No accommodated soft landing.

‘Ms. Dimadozen, where would you like us to send your last check?’

While the editor and the stocker have the same physical impairment, and maybe even similar physical limitations, judges have to squish on through the muck of assessing what residual capacities – talents, skills, and credentials –  a claimant has to determine whether the person is defined as bigstock-Muddy-Feet-In-The-Tideland-24009269“disabled” or whether they still are economically useful.

Squish on, your Honor.  Squish on.

The Shame of Disability

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 Unhappy Woman Hiding Her Face With Hand On Itstand 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 bigstock-old-broken-bike-26064467excited 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.bigstock-Woman-Depressed-Series-27253388

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.

stop pretending and faking. Face reality or truth and stop telliDespite 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 Portrait of a school teacher sitting at a desk with a blackboardairing 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.

bigstock-Portrait-of-funny-surprised-wo-36732706Instead 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.Old School Myths  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.