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The Affordable Care Act (affectionately termed Obamacare) is likely to be repealed in a few months.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.
When I first wrote about applying for disability, I mentioned a standard practice of the Social Security Administration: default semi-automatic denials of disability claims. On average, it takes 3-5 years for someone who is disabled to be awarded benefits. This routine dragging out of claims affects me and many others financially and emotionally and also feels immoral and unjust. The disability process has been intentionally crafted to be as difficult as possible to navigate and even survive, yet this program was founded for the purpose of helping people live better lives.
The following letter is my formal response to a denial of my first claim. To be clear, many claims are denied twice before moving to a hearing with a judge. I am sharing this publicly because I want to expose the vulnerability so many go through as they seek disability – as they seek resources so they might live longer, healthier, fuller lives in the face of significant barriers to a substantial work-life.
Before I share my letter, here are some reasons I was told I am not disabled under the rules of the Social Security Administration:
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.
Becoming disabled is indescribable, so of course here I am trying to write about it.
I did not simply become disabled and accept it with the snap of the fingers: “Aha, so that explains everything! I’m disabled!”
Let me make the clear distinction between becoming vs being disabled. Becoming disabled is a learning process. Being disabled is what happens after the shock has subsided and one has accepted disability as part of his or her identity. Plenty of people have never “become disabled” because they’ve always been disabled – they have never been any other way. The difference between becoming disabled and being disabled is as simple as broken versus whole. When we finally reach the acceptance stage, we are once again whole, having accepted that disability is part of us now.
There is no timeline to follow after a sudden and shocking diagnosis – other than scheduled doctor appointments, and perhaps the sudden tendency to plan for the unexpected worst so that if things improve there’s a reason to celebrate. Rather than having a reliable and predictable five-year plan, the sidewalk paves itself with each step you take.
It’s definitely not a walk in the park. Becoming disabled is more like walking through the apocalypse. Think broken pavement. Zombies. Car alarms. Birds, big black birds. And whatever else you can think of that you wouldn’t want to round the corner and run into. Clowns. Spiders. Snakes. Balloons. Door to door salespeople. Fear. That’s what I’m talking about. Fear. It’s what threatens to overtake each tentative step forward into the unknown, unpredictable new body you now inhabit. Fear is a powerful substance. Continue reading Becoming Disabled Is the Apocalypse→
Just fill out the forms, submit them, and wait for the phone to ring, right?
Some of you probably know late last year I began the journey to join the throngs of people who subsist off Social Security Disability (SSDI) or Supplemental Security Income (SSI). Truly, I tell you, it was such an easy thing to recognize and claim I could no longer work.
Why have I spent the last two years using every ounce of energy I have to try to earn a living? Because the last thing I wanted to do was admit that I was too sick to function like the normal, healthy human being I knew I would always be. Because I was raised to work hard, and remember, there are people out there who have it worse than I do. But I learned those things when the biggest challenge in my life was convincing my soccer coach to let me play the whole match without subbing out. I was the super-involved kid in high school: on the soccer team, track team, in band and drama, and a straight-A student who graduated 10th or 11th in my class. I could do anything and everything and that’s the way the world worked for everyone else too, if they would just approach life with all the vigor and energy I had rattling in my pockets.
That was then. It’s different now. A diagnosis of ankylosing spondylitis flipped me over and shook the spare change out of my pockets. Where I used to sleep through North Carolina hurricanes that hurled tree branches and rain pellets onto the roof of my house, I now rarely find REM sleep even in the most relaxed spaces. Fatigue affects my mental and physical functions, sometimes causing me to lose the word I was about to say in the middle of a sentence. My depth perception is off, causing me to hit my head on clothes racks and slam into door frames with my hip. I now focus on the basic needs to function and survive, which involves a much different skill-set than my original dream of saving the world as a professional soccer player and community garden coordinator. Others my age are focused on getting a promotion at work, losing weight, starting a family, buying a house, and finding a good group of friends to grow old with. Continue reading Accessing Welfare Is Easy→
My previous post, The Work of Being a Professional Patient, needed a second chapter. There’s more to that broken system than simply being an unpaid professional patient. In addition to the phone calls, meetings, emails – the legwork of managing our healthcare as chronic disease patients – there’s a lot of money involved, and a lot of it flows out of the pockets of people who can’t afford the care they need.
The system is broken.
It is a system designed for healthy people to get catastrophically sick and go from there. A system that punishes people for being sick but provides no support to keep them from getting sick. Only $251 is spent per capita on public health measures aimed at proactively preventing illness. The American healthcare system pads the wallets of health insurance and big pharma companies and often doctors and nurses too, then forces patients to do their work for them. America, land of the sick, home of the outsourced labor in our own back yards: people paying corporations a big chunk of their income for the privilege of managing their own healthcare. Privilege is a dangerous word. I’m privileged to be chronically ill and I pay over 10% of my monthly budget on my healthcare premium alone, after the assistance of the federal subsidy intended to keep my rates within my income limits. This does not include my out of pocket expenses on doctor visit copays, prescription copays, over the counter NSAIDs, heating pads, and various treatments to manage side effects of either medication or illness. Continue reading The Affordable Care Act is Not Affordable for Me→