There is a recent NPR Planet Money story that has disability activists up in arms. It’s called “Unfit To Work: The Startling Rise of Disability in America.” There are now 14 million people drawing federal disability benefits, the article states, and then proceeds with largely anecdotal backup to argue that something fishy is going on here. The big point, I think, is this: “…disability has… become a de facto welfare program for people without a lot of education or job skills.” If you can’t find work, in other words, or don’t want to work, you feign a work-preventing disability and get on the SSDI dole.
That’s the tone of the piece and though I am far from an expert on these issues, it feels preposterously wrong-headed. It feels like Chicken Little
. Remember the story? Chicken Little gets hit on the head with an acorn and thinks “The sky is falling!” Find a few ambiguous examples of SSDI recipients and call it a crisis. Along the way, unfortunately, you tend to stigmatize, marginalize, and belittle the millions and millions of very deserving recipients who depend on this government aid for their survival.
Part of the problem that clouds the issue and allows the narrow-minded to project this suspicious view of the disabled is the very definition of a disability. There isn’t one. Any adverse condition, from paralysis to shortness of breath, could qualify, if you find the right doctor and are willing to go through the hellish process of applying for SSDI support. From what I’ve read, it’s no snap of the finger to get these payments. There are usually rejections, appeals, lawyers, and a lot of bureaucratic mumbo-jumbo involved. If you are faking a condition, you got to be really good at it, and for a long time.
In any case, if you’re of the mind to think that the disabled, like all those other nanny-state freeloaders, are just jacking the system, then the foggy definition of the word only strengthens your argument. “Well, hell, anyone with a sore neck can get some of that money! You can probably say you got a pain in your pinky and they’ll write you a check! It’s like them handicapped placards. Anyone with a shady doctor can get one!”
There is a very funny show on “Showtime” called “Shameless.” The lead character, Frank Gallagher, played by the great William H. Macy, is the most shiftless character in the history of American TV. He drinks all day, ignores the needs of his own family, and is a full-time conman. His biggest scam? His monthly disability check for recurring headaches. To paraphrase his logic, no one can tell you whether or not you have chronic excruciating headaches. You just have to convince them that they are ruining your life and preventing you from working. Piece of cake? It is for Frank the weasel.
Another character in the series, a woman played by Joan Cusack, also gets a monthly disability check because she is an agoraphobic and never leaves her house. How can you tell a real agoraphobic from someone who simply stays at home all day and watches The Steve Harvey Show?
“Shameless” is a black comedy and Frank, like Fred Sanford, Homer Simpson and a million other comic fools, is no role model for anyone. But it’s easy to see how some humorless idiot could point to Frank as “what’s wrong with this damn country.”
Once these kinds of negative stereotypes enter the public discourse – like the Cadillac-driving welfare mom or the kids of illegal immigrants ruining the school system – they are very hard to dislodge. I’m not sure that the image of the disabled as frauds has quite sunk in yet. The reigning stereotype of the disabled remains that of weak, helpless, and useless people, i.e., people to be pitied, not to be leery of. But, with a growing number of Americans receiving disability benefits and a good chunk of the populous convinced that government is the root of all evil, The Great Federal Disability Scam feels like an emerging right-wing talking point.
If you are “really” disabled and need the support, get ready for a fight.
© 2013 Allen Rucker |
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