Tag Archives: Social Security

Jessie Holds Court

people, children, technology, friends and friendship concept - hJessie was smaller and younger, but had by far the best ideas, so she was the ringleader.

We lived near a school that sometimes was in session when ours was not.  The school had large-windowed classrooms at its basement level, and if you were a little kid standing outside one of those windows, it was as if you were on a stage, framed in a veritable proscenium arch, optimal for entertaining the captive inhabitants of the classroom therein.

Think of the possibilities.

Once when they were in session, but we were not, Jessie had us dress up “like the girls fromTwo Little Girls Vintage Photograph Little House on the Prairie,” go to the school where we crawled to the window and looked with exaggerated longing into a classroom full of kids about our age.  We were not disruptive.  We were just there … sitting.   Jessie pretended to take notes on a pad of paper.  When the teacher eventually came to shoo us away, Jessie, stuttered out a wistful protest in the most hammed-up, corn-pone delivery imaginable … “we … we … we just want to learn.”

Brought-the-house-down.   Even the teacher.

Ha-ha-ha!  A delightful little childhood story from back in the day when families had five and six and nine kids apiece, and instead of having a helicopter for a mom, our perfectly competent mothers locked us out of the house with the admonishment to “go play.”  You heard the click of the lock, and you went off to … play.  Your mother went into the house to get after her work, and did not feel the least bit of guilt over the transaction.  Those were the days.

I could go on and on with adorable stories of tender childhood adventures and pranks, but as I people, children, misbehavior, friends and friendship concept -think of them … now with the sensibilities of an adult … I realize that a lot of what we did, and thought nothing of at the time, were actually pretty awful things.  No need to plead the 5th given that the Statutes of Limitation run by the time your moms pass on.  But no kidding … we did some pretty awful things.

Here’s one:  the church at the end of our block had a little yard with a swing set, slide and sandbox.  While playing in the sandbox one summer afternoon, Jessie and I discovered a door to the church had been freshly painted bright red.  It was beautiful and fresh and wet … and there we were … with the sand.  Though unimaginable to me now, we threw sand on the door and ran away laughing ourRed Door horrible little heads off.

Ha-ha-ha!  A delightful little childhood story from back in the day. Adorable little rascals, weren’t we?  

Devils more like.

And another:  we found an unlocked window which was a reliable way into the church building and snuck in on Saturdays to play in a classroom set up for Sunday school.  We played with toys and pretended to be teachers writing arithmetic problems and spelling words on the chalkboard.  Nothing profane.  But when we found a utility closet with a sizeable store of Dawn dishwashing detergent, we squirted whole bottles of it in a hallway, ran back and forth to a drinking fountain getting mouthsful of water and spitting them onto the floor creating a dastardly Slip-n-Slide that certainly was an hours-long horror to clean up. 

I knew it was wrong.  But the clean up was the only thing I considered … and then disregarded.  

Were there consequences my ten-year old self wouldn’t have considered?  Did an elderly person happen upon our handiwork and become injured by it?   I don’t know.   Jessie and I went Senior Woman Enjoying Cup Of Tea At Homeblissfully on our way.  Now, too late, I wonder.

In my early adulthood, I had a delightful, elderly neighbor who occasionally invited me in for tea and a chat.  She was mugged on her porch and in the violence was pushed to the ground and broke her pelvis.  It was shocking the degree to which her quality of life abruptly declined.  She was left quite depleted and depressed for the remainder of her days.

The muggers, she said, were “just teenagers.”

She recognized their acts were borne of youthful indiscretion. Indiscretion with a clear and direct potential for the debilitation that occurred though.  Squirting slippery detergent on a floor is not the same as a mugging.  I will restrain myself from obnoxious over-piety to equate them.  But the effect, for all I know, could well have been the same.

Making decisions with inadequate information are unavoidably how all decisions in youth are made.  And they’re often bad decisions.  Many of mine were.

I confess that not only did I make decisions with inadequate information, but I also unconsciously gave too muchTeenage girl depression - lost love - isolated on white backgrou weight to banal personal concerns – my standing among peers, and my fear of crossing Jessie. 

Jessie might have been the ringleader because she had by far the best ideas, but also because she was a bit of a devilish little bully if you didn’t go along with them. 

Disability determinations are often unavoidably made with inadequate information too.  Medical records are necessarily the primary source of information used to determine whether a claimant is disabled.  Medical records almost never directly address how patients function.  And in most cases how a person functions is  the only relevant issue to the question of disability.  

Even diligent scrutiny of every shred of medical evidence can leave a decision maker at an honest wobble as to whether the records prove up a disability or not.  (I attempt to get at this in If it may please the court, I’d like to whisper sweet nothings in your ear.)

The concern is whether decision-makers left in the lurch after all the evidence is considered would slip into using generalized information to make specific decisions in particular cases.

In Scheherazade’s Superpower, I mentioned that a dissenting opinion in a U.S. Court of Appeals case stated that when medical records are unclear, decision-makers are justified to tip the scales in favor of an assumption that a claimant is likely feigning the disability. The case cited a story of fraud.   (Ghanim v. Colvin763 F.3d 1154 (9th Cir. 2014)) 

This is the kind of generalized information I mean.  

It’s jarring to read this advice in case law, but … I rather appreciate the honesty.

EscapingThe stories of fraud, even when true, represent a tiny fraction of the scope of the disability program.  

Nonetheless, the stories are a huge embarrassment to the Administration, to its decision-makers, to private attorneys representing disabled claimants, and to the claimants themselves.  

Everyone is injured by fraud.  Everyone is implicated by fraud.  

Everyone.  Everyone.  Everyone.  Even all the law-abiding everyones. 

With the rise of stories of fraud in the press, and the documented decline in awards of benefits to claimants, one wonders whether these variables are merely correlated, or whether the rise of the stories is a cause of the decline.  The Ghanim case would suggest there is at least some causation. 

One wonders whether, in addition to Social Security’s stringent standard of what must be proven to obtain disability benefits, if claimants’ burden now also includes overcoming the presumption they are frauds at the outset. 

This would make obtaining benefits, even when truly disabled, quite a bit morePocket Watch Swinging On A Chain Black Background difficult.  Especially so if the burden wasn’t stated, but just hypnotically played itself out in the background of decision after decision after decision after decision.

Shhhh ….  When I snap my fingers, you will see fraud everywhere … when I snap my fingers you will see fraud in everyone … shhhh … decide … shhhh … decide … shhhh … decide.

The Social Security Administration is responding to fraud aggressively.  And they should.   They have increased the numbers of fraud units nationwide.  And they have announced it will be responding to fraud … even before it happens … by the use of predictive analytics.  

Predictive analytics allows fraud investigators to predict who might be a “risky person” in an effort to prevent fraud.  Preventing crime before it occurs makes sense.  Right? 

But using predictive analytics to implicate specific persons before commission of  a criminal act … that’s a bit like … like Spielberg’s film, Minority Report where crimes are foreseen by psychic “pre-cogs,” and prosecuted in advance of their occurrence!  

Tom Cruise at the Los Angeles Premiere of 'Valkyrie'. The DireTom Cruise playing the Chief of Pre-Crime bursts into a home, cuffing a suspect saying … “by mandate of D.C. Pre-crime Division, I’m placing you under arrest for the future murder of Sarah Marks, that was to take place today ….” 

It all made a kind of sense until the pre-cogs foresaw Cruise’s character planning a murder of a person he didn’t even know.

Predictive analytics would not be used to prosecute crimes before they’re committed, but would be used, according to Social Security’s Acting Commissioner Carolyn Colvin, to prevent fraudulent applications from being processed.”  

It’s unclear what … “preventing fraudulent applications from being processed” means … but it sounds like it’s … finally an articulation that claimants, or at least some of them, do have the burden to overcome a presumption they are frauds at the outset … before their applications for benefits are even processed, much less adjudicated.  

It’s jarring to hear this from the Commissioner, but … I rather appreciate the honesty.

people, children, television, friends and friendship concept - tWe need … to think this through.  We need to make informed, fully-conscious decisions.

At any rate, Jessie and I were darn lucky there wasn’t a Juvenile Pre-Crime Division back in the day. Although, in our case, we would assuredly have deserved whatever pre-punishment we got.

All people have an interest in disability determinations being made correctly.  The integrity of the program depends on it.

The devils, as always, are in the wayward little rascally details.

Scheherazade’s Superpower

Shahryãr the fabled Persian king discovered his wife’s infidelity and ordered her death. Burka03

Concluding that every woman is the same as the first, and each in turn would always be unfaithful, King Shahryãr marries a new virgin every afternoon, and at morning’s light orders his bride beheaded before an opportunity to dishonour him could arise.

Seems reasonable.

The king carries on for years in this way until the marriageable women are either dead or have fled and then it is Scheherazade’s turn.

Scheherazade is a storyteller.

On their wedding night, Scheherazade asks the king if she may tell her sister, Dunyazad, one last beautiful woman in oriental style with mehendi in hijabbedtime story.  The king grants her request.

Scheherazade skillfully relates an inventive narrative that captivates the king.  Shahryãr sits, with Dunyazad, and is brought along by each image, turn of phrase, suspense, and narrow escape.  Morning arrives, but the story is not complete and the king spares Scheherazade to finish the story.

The stories never end for a thousand and one nights.  By that time, Shahryãr’s heart is Scheherazade’s, and her stories have saved them both.

Story is Power.

Human brains rely on narrative to understand a complex world.  The tighter the narrative, the more direct, and simple, the more a person feels he or she has mastered the concepts and can extrapolate fundamental, guiding principles.  If information, later-received, falls outside of the story, it is discarded as untrustworthy.

I am not criticizing this way of understanding.  And even if I were, it is not negotiable.  It is the The Thinker Statue by the French Sculptor Rodinway of the human bean.  And, it is inadequate only to the extent that beans exclude contradictory information.

When contradictory information is accepted, when it is welcomed and considered, when thinkers allow it to challenge their assumptions, draw out questions, deepen consideration and enhance understanding … … why … … why that’s the scientific method!

Over the course of the past decade, there have been a thousand and one stories in various media telling of people committing fraud on Social Security.  

The Legal Reference Librarians at the Library of Congress have been so inundated with requests for information about the Social Security disability programs in recent years, that to manage them, they published a basic primer to which they could refer reporters.  

More recently there have been stories telling that the Social Security Disability fund is to run dry by the end of 2016.  It appears the funding issue is subtly related to the prevalence of the fraud stories – but perhaps not in the way you might think.

On January 6, 2015, the first day of the 114th Congress, Republicans in the House of Representatives amended a parliamentary rule restricting reallocations of monies between the Retirement, and Disability funds.  Such reallocations have uneventfully occurred eleven times in the history of the programs.

Capitol building Washington DC pink flowers garden USA congressWhen Social Security raised the retirement age, more people in the “disability-prone years” were both unable to work, and unable to wait until they reached retirement age and so applied for disability.  The effect was that the Retirement fund was advantaged, while the Disability fund was disadvantaged.

So, the Retirement fund is hella huge right now, and the Disability fund is bust.  Time for an uneventful reallocation.  With a reallocation, both funds would be solvent through 2033.

Recall the funding drought is subtly related to the prevalence of the fraud stories?  If the connection isn’t clear, the Representatives behind the rule change help to clarify:

Rep. Sam Johnson (R-TX), justified the rule change with an interesting back flip by saying:

In 2016 the fraud-plagued disability program will become insolvent.  If nothing is done, Americans with disabilities will see an across-the-board cut of 20% to their benefits.  Unfortunately, the President and Democrats support raiding the Social Security retirement program to bail out the disability program.

Huh?  The rule change you put forward is the reason the disability program will become insolvent in 2016.  It wouldn’t have been insolvent without you guys making that change.

Oh, I get it!  It’s one of those tight little narratives – direct and simple!   Now I’m supposed to feel I’ve mastered the concepts and can extrapolate fundamental, guiding principles therefrom!  bigstock-Happy-Black-Woman-12039302Now, if other information, later-received, falls outside that narrative, I’m to discard it as untrustworthy!   I see what you did there!   You got me, Representative Johnson!  You got me good!

Rep. Tom Reed (R-NY), a co-sponsor said,

My intention by doing this is to force us to look for a long term solution to [Social Security Disability Insurance] rather than raiding Social Security [Retirement] to bail out a failing federal (Disability) program.  Retired taxpayers who have paid into the system for years deserve no less.

Disabled taxpayers of Social Security Disability Insurance have also paid FICA taxes for years.  But let’s not quibble over details.

Story is Power.  But if you don’t have a story, just keep saying a thing over and over again until all the beans just think it’s so.  That’s power too.   

Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) consistently states that “over half of the people on disability are either anxious or their back hurts…. Join the club.”  

That’s simple, understandable … a nice frame.  I think I’ve mastered the concept – the Disability program is riddled with fakes and frauds.  Got it.

Rand Paul is an ophthamologist.  One would think he  would appreciate gradations of medical conditions.  A person has “vision problems” if she is blind.  A person has “vision problems” if she only needs reading glasses.  The same is true for people with psychiatric and orthopedic conditions.  

Senator Paul’s simplistic statements are given more weight because he is a Senator, and because he is a physician.  His statements provide that nice, simple framework for all the beans to think they’ve mastered the complex concepts involved in “disability” and can extrapolate fundamental, guiding principles therefrom. 

Fox News’ reporter Shannon Bream says that 100% of people receiving disability benefits are receiving them “under false pretenses.”

100%.  Not only is that simple, it guarantees that any contradictory information falls outside the narrative, and must be discarded as untrustworthy.  

Seems reasonable. 

The connection between the stories of fraud, the overblown proclamations of fraud, and defunding the Disability program is taut.

fortune-teller with a shining crystal ballMadame Dunk Tank predicts the future … … the orchestrated insolvency of the Disability fund will be used as leverage to attack the program, to attempt legislatively to deplete it, to cut benefits, and to defame disabled people who either receive disability benefits or apply for them.

Madame Dunk Tank foresees the pitting of “good” retirees against “bad” disabled people.

Madame Dunk Tank advises you to prepare for more stories of fraud … prepare for more invective leveled at disabled people.  They are ripe for the picking on.

While the stories of fraud are drastically overblown, there are instances of fraud to be sure.  Some of the stories of fraud are true even if, statistically, they are a blip.

I do not minimize fraud.  Social Security rightly has a Zero Tolerance Policy on fraud.  The Dunk Tank has a Zero Tolerance Policy on fraud. 

Social Security’s Office of Inspector General puts great effort into policing fraud.  And they would appreciate your help.  If you have information of anyone committing Social Security fraud, report it.  It is easy to report, and you may do so anonymously.  Click here to report.

fraud bride and political or police corruption money corrupt cybHaving said that, statistically, fraud is not a major problem for Social Security.

The nonpartisan Government Accountability Office in conjunction with the Office of Inspector General researched the question of fraud in the disability program and found that 0.4% of disability beneficiaries were likely receiving improper payments. 

In West Law’s November 2014 issue of Current News, a private, subscription-only (which is why I can’t link to it) publication on Social Security, it was reported that Social Security’s Office of Inspector General had audited a seven year period in California to determine the accuracy of payments to beneficiaries reported by the state as deceased. Only 22 of 1.2 million Social Security card-holders, were erroneously being issued checks despite the recipient having died.   That is an astonishing 99.999% rate of accuracy!  

Social Security should be lauded for that degree of near-perfection. 

I never saw that in the press.   One could imagine the tight little narratives – direct and simple – about the 22 mistakes though … out of context … with the projected millions of misspent dollars.  Thankfully I never saw that in the press either. 

Although fraud is not statistically a major problem for the Social Security Administration given the scope of its reach in assisting elderly and disabled people, increasing numbers of erroneous denials of legitimate claims for disability benefits is a major problem.

In Ghanim v. Colvin, 763 F.3d 1154, Chief Judge Alex Kozinski, in dissent makes an argument that when there is conflicting evidence that comes down reasonably on either side of the question of disability – especially where a claimant alleges a mental disability – that an Administrative Law Judge is well-justified to tip the scales in favor of an assumption that the claimant is likely faking the disability.  Judge Kozinski’s opinion actually cited the Wall Street Journal article Ex-NYPD Cops, Firefighters Charged With Disability Fraud.

bigstock-Portrait-of-judge-sitting-with-41940163And there it is.  Story is power.

Federal judges, and Administrative Law Judges do not remain above the fray.  They are human beans judging human beans.

Nothing more.  Even with the robe. 

Like the rest of us, judges read these tight, simple little narratives and the stories form the basis of their very human misunderstanding.

Like Shahryãr of the Persian folk tale who concluded that every woman would be unfaithful because his first wife had been, judges take the tight little narrative of the fraud stories and conclude every disabled person who comes before them is likely also to be a fraud.

This is perhaps why the most recent data from Social Security’s Office of Chief Actuary regarding awards of benefits shows a decline from 56.1% in 2000 to just 34.8% in 2010.  And the downward trend continues.

Erroneous denials of legitimate claims is a major problem.  

When a legitimately disabled person is erroneously denied benefits the person remains disabled.  That fact is not changed by the denial.  An erroneous denial does not change reality.

Let me explain it this way:

Social Security Retirement and Disability Benefits, and Supplemental Security Income are available to elderly people as a matter of course.  There is nothing to prove, other than age, to receive them.  So, there is no opportunity for erroneous denials in the case of the elderly.

Have you ever noticed the homeless population in the United States is mostly not elderly?  I had not noticed it myself until travelling in the middle east and Africa. 

The demographic of the homeless population is much older in countries lacking a well-run social safety net like Social Security.  Although homeless people almost always look older than their years, the people I saw sleeping in the streets in the middle east and Africa looked to be in their seventies, and eighties. 

I have never seen a homeless person in the United States in that age range.  And that’s the kind of thing I notice.

Homeless Man Sleeping On A Bench

Our elderly are spared the fate of living in the streets because Social Security reliably, and without question (with no erroneous denials) provides support.

If Social Security afforded Administrative Law Judges discretion in determining benefits to the elderly, there would be mistakes, and we would see homeless elderly in the United States. 

Living the life of a disabled person with (in most cases) absolutely no income for years and years and years, while going through the years’ long disability adjudication process is astonishingly difficult.  This is a lot of time.  And it is hard time.  It stands to reason disabled people are not doing this in a complex scheme to commit fraud.  

I know this is information that falls outside the simple narrative, but take it in.  Consider it.  

When a disabled person is awarded Supplemental Security Income he receives at most $733 per month.   At most.  The amount can be less, but never more.  

When a disabled person is awarded Social Security Disability Insurance benefits, the average monthly benefit is $1,165 per month.  This benefit is based on how much the person paid in FICA taxes, so the number is not a fixed amount – that’s why I can only give the average.

Madame Dunk Tank avoids technicalities so as not to bore, but it is important to know that a disabled person can receive a little from both programs, but that is only when the amount received from Social Security Disability is less than $733.  When that happens, Supplemental Security Income kicks in to “supplement” the Disability benefits up to $733.  So, even if a person receives concurrent benefits, the amounts are not more than the lower amount. 

News flash:  Nobody gets rich on disability. The benefits meet only very basic subsistence living.  Recipients of disability benefits are still either at or below the poverty line.  It stands to reason disabled people are not doing this in a complex scheme to commit fraud.  

An erroneous denial of a legitimate claim is a tragedy.  It is a tragedy for the disabled individual, for their families, and for the society that steps over and fears its disabled, desperate, homeless people who live in its streets.

An inadmirable Administrative Law Judge once told me, “it’s no skin off my teeth if I get it wrong. They just go away.” 

Seems reasonable. 

The claimant may or may not go away.   But assuredly the problem does not.  

Closeup of business crowd raising hands

By a show of hands, how many attorneys out there have had at least one client successfully commit suicide upon receiving a denial of Social Security Disability Benefits?

Yeah.  Me too.

But, given their options, after an erroneous denial,  the choice seems reasonable. 

For the myths to persist …

Fairy With Staff, 3D Computer GraphicsThe myths of Social Security disability are that … it is easy to obtain, rife with mildly-impaired scammers, and a good life once received.

For the myths to persist, the public cannot know …

– the many, many years it takes to obtain Social Security disability benefits,
– the invasive nature of the personal information disabled people must divulge to Social Security,
– the shame and fear of going before a court to disclose personal incapacity,
– how arduous life is with no money for the years of waiting,
– the penetrating shame most disabled people bear….Treasure

And, for the myths to persist, the public cannot know how little is the financial gain … with the average disabled person eligible for Social Security Disability living on just $ 1,232.00 per month, or a disabled person on Supplemental Security Income receiving, at the most, $ 721.00 per month.

It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s Actuary Man!

SuperheroDamian Paletta and Josh Zumbrun, journalists covering economic policy for The Wall Street Journal, published Has Social Security Disability Enrollment Hit Plateau?

The title is a question.

A graph in the article answers the question.

Yes.  Disability enrollment has plateaued.

Smiling senior man holding a big black arrow pointing down isola

Mr. Paletta and Zumbrun wonder aloud if “the program has actually peaked and [if it] will ever recede.” 

But … Mr. Paletta and Mr. Zumbrun are mere mortals, they are not … Actuary Man!   Superhero

Actuary Man, the mild-mannered Stephen C. Goss, Chief Actuary for the Social Security Administration whose superpower is a mathematically based Nostradamus-like ability to foretell the future, has predicted, based on demographic and stochastic modeling, exactly this plateau of the numbers of people enrolled in the disability programs.

On March 13, 2014, Mr. Goss testified before Congress.  His testimony was replete with charts and graphs explaining the demographic swell that is and was the baby boom and how it Two young people under an umbrella bringing a teddy bear and floaffects claims on Social Security’s disability and retirement programs and Medicare costs.

Mr. Goss also explained how the drop in the birth rate following the baby boom created higher costs for these programs relative to taxable income, but that the circumstance will stabilize as the baby boomers … um … no longer need these supports.

How-to make the sun rise in the morning

businessman on computer and cyber bullyingWhen you administer a blog, you see the search terms people use to get to your site.

Common search terms bringing folks to Disability Dunk Tank are:

– “how to shame losers”
– “how to shame losers on disability”
– “losers on disability”
– “how to shame disabled people”

The folks who come to me using such search terms gravitate to these posts:

I suppose such visitors are disappointed in the content they find in those posts.   MSummer metaphoraybe they’re heartened to learn that most disabled people who apply for and receive Social Security disability benefits feel plenty of shame just from the circumstance itself.

Learning ‘how-to shame losers on disability’ is as unnecessary as learning ‘how-to make the sun rise in the morning.’

Go ahead, check those off your to-do list already.

German Philosopher, Arthur Schopenhauer, wrote, “[m]ostly it is loss which teaches us about the worth of things.”  

To encounter adults who have lost the ability to work provides opportunity to assess human worth apart from earning power.  

Depressed Female Acne SuffererPeople have the ability to work for a finite period of their lives.   People do not usually have the ability to work when they are very young or very old.   Yet, people are valuable when they are children, and when they are elderly.

Disabled people who cannot work have the finite period of their work life, shortened.   Yet, they remain valuable.

Human value is not properly measured merely in economic terms.

And, for those who want to know ‘how-to shame disabled people,’ please know that you too may find yourself sick or injured or afflicted and learn first-hand that shame will come to you just from the circumstance itself.

Please … go now in peace and in good health.

 

 

An ever e-x-p-a-n-d-i-n-g universe of fear

 

WormholeMy fears listed in 2-point type would stretch from planet Earth into the Hubble deep field … sucked by dark energy ever farther away … an endless and accelerating supply of mostly banal personal concerns.   I awaken with them sometimes in the middle of the night … a subconscious working them over in my sleep.

I attempt to cultivate courage … to affect a gravitational pull … over my shameful, ever-expanding universe of fears.

And so … … I think of the unknown man standing alone in protest before the tanks in Tiananmen Square, 8.-Rebel-by-Marco-Crupi-Visual-Artist[1]humbly holding his white plastic shopping bag.   I think of Nelson Mandela jailed on Robben Island … of Galileo Galilei persecuted for declaring his discovery that Earth revolves around Sun.   I think of Thich Quang Duc‘s self-immolation … of Maximilian Kolbe, sheltering Jews despite arrests a stamp printed in USA shows Frederick Douglass leader of the abby the Nazi regime – and eventually being sent to Auschwitz.  Mahatma Gandhi, Aung San Suu Kyi, Desmond Tutu, Emmeline Pankhurst, Edith Cavell, Odette Sansom, Abraham Lincoln, Sophie Scholl, Frederick Douglass, Malala Yousafzai.

I am not those people.

I am not even like those people.

The House of Representatives Budget Committee report, The War On Poverty:  50 Years Later frightens me.

The relentless, disproportionate reports of fraud perpetrated by claimants and recipients of Social Security disability benefits sends shivers up my spine.

The cultivation of an angry mob of well-meaning, but unknowing, people who hold a negative opinion of disabled people and who will demand policy changes based on misinformation, strikes fear into my heart.

Hearing an Administrative Law Judge say he is afraid to approve legitimately disabled claimants for fear of being called “outlier,” makes me break into a cold sweat for knowing what disabled people will continue to endure upon repeated, unfounded denials of support.

I think of brave people not to insinuate myself into their ranks.   I am not Abstract Businessman jets off with Rocket Pack.those people.   I quiver and ride my rocket ship of fear into ether.

I think of brave people to provide for myself a reference point.   And from it, I see the smallness of the courage required of me, and of judges, to do what is right by the disabled people who come to us.

We must endure criticism, be thought of as scoundrels, be misunderstood … fight for our clients, fight a political fight.

Malala_Yousafzai_at_Oval_Office_2013_cropped[1]Malala Yousafzai is a Pakistani girl who, at the age of 12, began blogging about her life in Pakistan under Taliban rule.   She was fearlessly outspoken, documenting human rights violations under the Taliban, and working to advance the cause of education for girls in her country.   She granted interviews to the BBC, the New York Times, eventually a documentary was made about her.   She was nominated for the International Children’s Peace Price … and then, the  Nobel Peace Prize.

On October 9, 2012, a gunman boarded a school bus on which Malala was riding, asked for her by name, and shot her three times.  Malala survived the attack.   The Taliban has reiterated its intent to kill her.   Malala continues to speak and to write.

I am not Malala.

Disabled people, attorneys representing disabled people, Social Security’s workers and judges must endure criticism in a rancorous political climate.   We must endure being misunderstood.   But we also must stand in this swirl and together fight this good and worthy fight … Pin-up Sailor Girls Showing Physical Strengthunderstanding that this fight – though important – is not asking very much of us in the way of courage – really.

We can rise to this occasion.

All hands on deck.

So … I’ve been thinking about what you said …

bigstock-crazy-man-39709744A reader of the Dunk Tank submitted a pointed, insightful comment in response to Sochi Security.   So interesting a comment … it shouldn’t be buried in the comment graveyard.

Here it is.

You make a good point about claimants wishing to present a certain image via social media.  But doesn’t an individual’s unwillingness or inability to present the truth in one forum have a bearing on his/her reliability in another forum?

More to the point, why is a claimant who is an unreliable autobiographer on Facebook any more credible when he/she appears in a private hearing before an administrative judge?  Doesn’t the incentive for pecuniary gain during a hearing outweigh the natural tendency to minimize one’s limitations?

I realize that the financial stakes are modest compared to full-time, middle-class wages, but presumably every disability applicant has decided that even modest benefits are preferable to no benefits.  Under the circumstances, why is “I never leave the house and can’t lift a gallon of milk” more reliable than a photograph of someone giving a child a piggyback ride at Magic Kingdom?

I’m uncomfortable with the notion that we should take self-reports at face value only when they are consistent with disability, because it presumes that rational-yet-proud people would never overstate their limitations for money.

First of all, as I said in Thank you, Mr. Juhoff … and all the Mr. Juhoffs, bigstock-Happy-Black-Woman-12039302I am extremely pleased with the caliber of comments and questions Disability Dunk Tank receives.   Whether publicly posted, or privately emailed to disabilitydunktank@yahoo.com, absolutely each one has been interesting, thought-provoking, and respectful.

I am heartened by the vigorous, skillful discourse occurring here while the cacophony of crazy about Social Security disability rages everywhere else.

But I digress.

I replied with:

Thank you so much for your thoughtful comments, and pointed questions.  I so appreciate your willingness to engage in this important conversation.

I agree that judges should not take self-reports at face value only when they are consistent with a disability.  Absolutely not.  My concern is that a photograph of ‘someone giving a child a piggyback ride at Magic Kingdom’ would be so prejudicial as to be given controlling weight in the face of other important evidence – but evidence that is much, much more difficult to comprehend, like medical records.

bigstock-concert-lighting-against-a-dar-38587648The photograph seems to speak volumes about the life, but in the end, a photograph is a snapshot of a moment without context.  The photograph doesn’t speak to the moments before, or the moments after.

With considerable frequency I encounter family members of disabled people who encourage the disabled person to get out of the house, go to the grocery store, go with the family to the zoo … those kinds of normal things.  And the disabled person will, with varying degrees of cooperation, play along.

One of the first commenters on this blog was a man who both worked at Social Security and who had a disabled son, and wrote about that push-pull of knowing full well what needed to be proved to win a disability case, but who pushed his child toward wellness and building on strengths as much as possible … all while knowing in his heart of hearts that his boy was disabled and qualified.

Let me just re-post his comment.  He said it so well:

I have to say that I’ve been on both sides.  Taking claims for years, doing support work in Baltimore lets me say you’ve described the business of disability.

We have law, regs, OIG audits that insist of an impartial, repeatable process.  And people who follow the laws, rules, regs and process.  It’s a job, there are pressures, if not actual quotas and the personal aspect is hard to keep; Getting involved with claimants is bad for a CR.  So the dehumanization of the claimant is almost inescapable.   We can’t approve you because we like you or your story moves us, we need “objective” proof.

But as a dad who files for his son, there was this moment of dissonance as I, the savvy dad, focused on Listings, highlighted proofs I obtained, prepared a package of evidence that linked to the listings, that answered the questions about ADL even before they were asked, and answered them in a form DDS employees understand.

Father Helping Disabled Son Walk In The Ocean Waves On BeachI was able to step away from my son the human being and make him my son the claimant while seeing him in both lights.   

And I did good, a presumptive dib and a final approval in 50 days.

But my wife?  Despite also working for the agency she couldn’t see her son like a claimant.  And that’s a wonderful thing.  But I know had she been the one to do the paperwork, it’d be a lot longer to get the claim approved.

For the reasons I said earlier, along with those from today’s blog post, filing for disability isn’t easy, trivial or a sure thing.  And the way it’s being painted as some sort of money teat for the lazy is just wrong.  (Yes, some folks do scam the system but that doesn’t diminish anything said in the blog or the replies.  Humans make mistakes, they steal, it happens.  But that doesn’t taint the program.)

bigstock-Beautiful-Black-Woman-3235736The rest of my reply to the original commenter:

Complex emotional territory.  Complex emotional territory that can be captured in a photograph and uploaded to Facebook to tell what a family member or a disabled person wishes were the truth.

I am struck by your question, ‘[d]oesn’t the incentive for pecuniary gain during a hearing outweigh the natural tendency to minimize one’s limitations?’

Yes.  During a hearing, the incentive for pecuniary gain does Angryoutweigh the natural tendency to minimize one’s limitations.  In my view, the weight of your question lies in the phrase “during the hearing.”

From my vantage point, I see these cases playing out not only during a hearing, but during the year and a half, two years, three years … that it takes to get to the hearing.

Grunge - PovertyWhat claimants endure during those enormous blocks of time: poverty, cast into the street oftentimes, failure, living without dignity in the basements of family members, being deeply ashamed of themselves, not being able to access healthcare, my women clients … the unspeakable – is too high a price to incentivize these modest financial gains.

When you have a front row seat to that show, you see how unlikely this is to be a complex con.

I have so often wished I could play the audio files in hearings bigstock-Siblings-Fighting-34299935of clients’ messages left … their scramble to find shelter in extreme weather, their relatives sometimes screaming at me to hurry up and get the hearing scheduled because they ‘can’t stand this person living in their house’ anymore, the messages from workers in churches who are calling to ask how they can help this homeless person who keeps showing up needing food … on and on and on.

bigstock-Highlighted-Nervous-System-3730601I have often thought that the most difficult part of being an ALJ would be only to have before me the record and the relatively few moments of the hearing upon which to make my decisions.

To me, that is a mere skeleton of the lives I see fleshed out before me.