I’ve heard some say disability benefits are unnecessary hand-outs for people who should just die off, and why should hard-working people foot the bill for people who are lazy, whose lives mean nothing?
The disability process itself mirrors these same sentiments – the 3-5 years (average) process for applying, fighting for, and receiving disability (SSI or SSDI) in the USA is by its nature a grueling process, with analysts hired to deny applicants not once, but twice (standard procedure), forcing the applicant to appeal their case twice over several months before a hearing is granted, which then takes years to schedule due to a shortage of judges. It is a process intended to force people to give up.
The first time I used a wheelchair was after tearing my ACL during a college soccer match in Washington, D.C. in 2005. My teammates convinced me to use one when we visited the Holocaust Museum, instead of crutches. I remember feeling invisible. I remember being trapped in the middle of congested hallways and exhibit rooms, seeing nothing but the backs of people scooting around and in front of me like I was a planter box in their way. I remember feeling empathy for people who spend a majority of their lives in a wheelchair. I hardly remember anything about the museum from that visit. And I became terrified of ever needing to use a wheelchair again.
On January 21st, 2017, I rolled in the Women’s March on Sacramento alongside some 30,000 people. I have only recently, very reluctantly, decided to begin using a wheelchair because of deteriorating health. My experience from college still haunts me, but I am learning to embrace how much more fully I can participate in life by using assistive devices that reduce pain and fatigue caused by Ankylosing Spondylitis. It’s the difference between staying home and showing up.
However, I was nervous about navigating the march, even with friends to help push me. I expected that I would spend all my energy advocating for space just to be able to proceed in a straight line. I thought I might regret the decision to use the chair, even though not using it could result in being bedridden for days or weeks.
The Affordable Care Act (affectionately termed Obamacare) is likely to be repealed in a few months.
I’m told personal stories are powerful, so I want to share mine.
I was always going to be healthy. Aside from a slight concern when I quit a job that offered health insurance and took another job without it, I never once considered I would need a team of doctors. I boast a background as a college athlete, professional mover (yes, heavy furniture, etc) and otherwise health-aware person.
But my body lied to me.
Nearly four years ago, I was diagnosed with Ankylosing Spondylitis, a severe disease that causes rampant and painful inflammation in the spine and other joints in the body, sometimes leading to the growth of bone spurs that fuse spinal vertebrae and hips. I wasn’t diagnosed by a healthcare provider at first – I found out I inherited this disease from my father after matching our symptoms.
I grew up privileged – white, yes – but also without ever considering what life would look like if my mother’s job did not provide her and her family with healthcare.
When I had walking pneumonia in fifth grade and was in bed for three weeks, I never considered what it would mean if my mother had to choose what to do or where to seek help if we didn’t have insurance.
When I was on birth control pills in high school, the drug co-pays were predictable. I didn’t fear my medication would suddenly become cost-prohibitive.
When I broke my nose, I never once considered that some people couldn’t go to the emergency room because they didn’t have insurance.
When I was in college I tore my ACL and later broke my hand playing college soccer. My bills were covered. I didn’t know other students didn’t have the healthcare I accessed.
I believed healthcare was something everyone had. If someone got sick or injured, s/he went to the doctor, paid the copay, then went to the pharmacy, paid the copay, etc etc.
We say it would never happen here. It could never happen to me.
But it did happen. It happened to us. It happens every day, on street corners, in homes, at workplaces, on Facebook. Hatred isn’t always seen. Homophobia isn’t always obvious. But they’re always intrusive and divisive.
We on the receiving end are accustomed to being wary of holding hands or kissing in public because we know someone could be watching and choose to target us. Fear builds. And builds. And builds until we hide our identities, even from ourselves, when we leave the safety of our homes or keyboards. Some of us can’t hide (or pass) because we look too masculine to be a woman, too feminine to be a man, too gay to be straight – too much “them” to be “us.”
Queer love and existence has always been more private out of necessity and out of fear. We are keenly aware and constantly reminded that there are people who hate us for who we love or how we identify. It could be anyone, so we tread lightly in public, many of us. And now we are pushed even further back into our homes, our bedrooms, our closets…because maybe these are the places we’ll be safe. The only places we can be safe, maybe.
Applying for disability is a demeaning, humiliating, invasive process.
I’ve heard it could take as little as three months to be awarded federal disability benefits, but I would probably have to be literally dying. I’ve heard it’s possible it could take six months to a year. “It’s possible” in the world of bureaucracy is nothing to lean on. Most people trudge through two to five years of endless forms, initial decisions, appeals, reconsiderations, and hearings before becoming card-carrying members of the unofficial federal disability club – if they’re successful. In kind terms, the Social Security Administration (SSA) drags its feet more for those who are younger, more educated, and healthier-looking. The SSA is less likely to award disability to those who have worked recently or, ironically, to those who have worked fewer years. Additionally, the lesser known or more abstract the disability as well as the more physical (as opposed to mental), the less willing the SSA is to acknowledge a disability. These are facts I have been told by staff at my attorney’s office, and all but one of them apply to my case.
As if I hadn’t already made the most difficult decision of my life to accept my inability to work, applying for disability takes it one step further, forcing me to accept every single other thing I can no longer do, even those I am not ready to accept. I still have dreams of being healthy, so please don’t take what’s left away from me too.
My reality has been muted by the towering, sound-proof piles of paperwork that sprout legs and chase me while I toss and turn at night. I have to prove to the Social Security Administration that I am unable to work, but also that I can no longer function independently. I have to prove I no longer have a life despite all I have done to maintain a semblance of living. I feel I am on the middle school debate team and I’ve been assigned the side I don’t agree with; in order to win I have to admit that I am incapable of the freedoms I embraced in yesteryears. I have to do more than just admit them – I have to fully believe my inabilities enough to prove them true to strangers. I have to believe I’m less than I ever imagined I would be so that others will believe me too.