In Which I Rant at NPR

Two weeks ago, NPR published a story about the rise in Social Security disability claims. The bottom line of the story is that unemployed people are choosing to go on SSDI because they have conditions that prevent them from doing physical labor and are not educated or qualified enough for desk jobs. According to this story, Social Security “has also become a de facto welfare program for people without a lot of education or job skills.” This is a legitimate issue, but there was plenty to object to in the story and I fired off an email to NPR. Since then, criticism of the story has skyrocketed, and NPR’s minor revisions of the story have not stemmed the tide. Others have done great analyses of the story and its many errors, and a coalition of disability rights advocates sent a terrific letter to NPR (pdf link).¬† Personally, I’m focused on a few comments by reporter Chana Joffe-Walt and the stereotypes those comments reinforce.

Joffe-Walt says that disability with Medicare could be a better deal than a minimum wage job with no healthcare. In the original version of the story, she said “it’s a deal 14 million Americans have chosen for themselves.” NPR has since revised the online text to read, “it’s a deal 14 million Americans have signed up for.” This is a distinction without a difference. Whether you use the verb “choose” or “sign up,” this is a statement that everyone on SSDI is there voluntarily. It’s the stereotype that disabled people are lazy slackers happy to live on the government dime.

I have a problem with that. I was forced to apply for, and now collect, Social Security disability. This was not anything that I chose. I got sick, I could not work, I applied for disability. And I hate collecting disability benefits. I would much rather be working, even if I couldn’t go back to the career I originally trained for and pursued. Furthermore, Joffe-Walt makes it sound like it’s easy to get SSDI. I don’t know if she actually investigated application and approval rates, but SSDI is not easy to obtain. I was denied twice, and finally succeeded after an ALJ hearing. The process took three years to complete. I know people who have spent even longer in the disability application process, and many have no other source of income during the long fight.

Joffe-Walt also points out, “Once people go onto disability, they almost never go back to work.” Gee, I don’t know, maybe because they’re disabled? Social Security requires that an applicant be disabled for at least a year, and unlikely to return to work, in order to qualify. Furthermore, the rigorous application and review process, and the years-long process of denial and appeal, would weed out all those able to return to work within a year or two of the illness or injury. Those of us who end up collecting benefits likely suffer from permanent or near-permanent disability, meaning that we will never return to work no matter how much we desire to do so.

The economics of disability is a worthwhile and complex subject. But of all the issues NPR could have covered – the cost of lost productivity, the plight of disabled people who cannot get benefits, the people who continue to work while being disabled, employment discrimination, the challenges of having invisible disabilities – of all these issues, NPR chose to focus on the slacker angle. The they’re-technically-disabled-but-have-chosen-to-exploit-the-system angle. Really, NPR? It’s like covering the economic impact of Hurricane Sandy by reporting on people who pad their losses in order to collect more insurance. Yes, it happens, but the most significant issues are more complex than the tired stereotype of people trying to collect money they do not deserve.


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3 Responses to In Which I Rant at NPR

  1. Kathy says:


    Thank you for so eloquently stating the thoughts I have had on this subject. I didn’t hear the NPR piece, but I have heard the same criticisms on other news programs. I have not had personal experience with disability because I was lucky enough to be able to keep my desk job, but I know it’s awfully hard to get, especially for CFS patients. When I was laid off at age 60 I realized that any other type of job (i.e., stocking shelves, cooking burgers, or doing anything in the fast-paced retail world) would not be an option for me. I wonder how many older laid off workers have similar circumstances with health that preclude them from doing these strenuous tasks. Disability would probably be impossible for me to obtain as I worked for 26 years with CFS, but finding another desk job at age 60 is pretty tough. Thanks goodness social security is just around the corner!

  2. Rivka says:

    thanks for writing this piece, jennie! — rivka

  3. Justin Reilly says:

    I agree, Jenny.

    When I was a paralegal I represented some SSI and SSD claimants (you don’t need to be a lawyer) pro bono. This was back in the Reagan years when it was somewhat harder to deservingly get benefits. I represented people before Administrative Law Judges at the SSA hearings referred to in the article.

    These hearings occurred only after a claimant had been denied twice over a period of years.

    Many of these claimants were clearly extremely disabled (judging by their medical records) by frank physical illnesses like heart disease.

    At the hearing, ALJs would often verbally attack the claimants, including developmentally disabled children, attempting to shame them into admitting they were not disabled. This article made the point that there is no prosecutor. I felt that respondents were generally in a worse position having the Judge be both prosecutor and judge than if he or she were just acting as judge. Pitting the judge as an adversary against a claimant certainly increases the chance that a claim will be unfairly denied.

    These bad experiences caused me to delay filing for benefits for years after I became disabled.

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