Making Your Disability Case to Social Security

My son goes to a tiny Montessori school that offers schooling to the equivalent of pre-K through 12th grade and that has been doing an excellent job of homeschooling the students who are currently “sheltering in place”. In true Montessori fashion, while providing lessons and work, the teachers also encourage the kids to be creative and follow their passions. A few days ago, my son drew this picture here. The mama sea turtle and her babies have decidedly sad faces as they sit on the sand amongst various pieces of rubbish, including a beer can, a soda can, a plastic straw, and a plastic grocery bag. Realistically, a few square feet of beach would only rarely have THAT much trash, probably, but my son was overstocking his picture to emphasize the worst-case scenario for the poor aquatic reptiles. His goal was to help his classmates remember that the lives of these animals are significantly limited by human behavior.

These past few weeks, I have also been helping several clients prepare to apply for their Social Security disability benefits, or appeal a decision regarding their Social Security disability benefits. The most successful benefits applications and appeals function like my son’s drawing. They depict the absolute worst-case scenario for the person applying. Finding worst-case scenarios in this case is more difficult to do than it sounds, because self-advocates, their family and friends and, thankfully, a growing percentage of educators, support staff, and caseworkers have conditioned themselves to focus on what the person CAN do instead. As an attitude to advise almost every other situation in the life of a person with a disability, this is optimal. As for a mindset to hold when applying for Social Security disability benefits, this is destined to fail.

An adult with disability, filing for Social Security, needs to convince the Administration that her/his disability is so significant that s/he cannot earn more than $1,260/month from work (or $2,110 if blind). Most people, who file for disability benefits, are not making that much. But the burden of proof is on the applicant to prove that s/he COULD not earn more than the above amounts even under ideal circumstances. So the likelihood that some employers are more hesitant about hiring people with disabilities, or the fact that many employers would prefer to keep a portion of their workforce as “part-time”, or the reality that some local economies remain seriously depressed even when the national economy is strong, or the fact that it is difficult to get reliable transportation—these external considerations are all irrelevant to the decision-makers at the SSA. The applicant’s arguments for eligibility must focus solely on her/his ability to work; and, particularly if the person is not currently working, to complete the kind of daily life tasks that could be used as a proxy for work capacity.

There are several lines of thinking that I recommend to clients that I coach. The first is to consider how much assistance and support the person needs to accomplish the things that s/he IS able to do. For example, suppose the person can cook a meal for her/himself. But FIRST, the person needs someone to driver her/him to the grocery store. When they get to the checkout line, the person needs someone else to help with the money. When they get home, the same person (who can cook her/his own meals) needs assistance with translating some of the measurement’s units from ounces to cups. Or there’s the case where the person has physical difficulty reaching and managing the stove. Or another case where the person has a behavioral health disorder that impedes the appetite, and s/he might forget to eat on a down day. Perhaps this same person cooks just fine if everything is in its right place in the kitchen, but s/he would have trouble finding a misplaced item.

Or consider a person who gets her/himself ready for work. But FIRST someone needs to take her/him to purchase the required work uniform and every weekend the person needs assistance ironing her/his work uniform. In the morning, the person needs a reminder of all the steps needed to be fully ready. S/he needs help applying for the ride-free public transportation card. Or s/he needs help setting up the subscription-required dial-a-ride for door-to-door transportation. Perhaps the same person needs assistance tracking her/his work schedule if it changes frequently. Perhaps the person needs help contacting her/his boss if s/he needs to take personal leave or vacation time.

The second tactic is to consider the challenges that the applicant might face doing any job for which s/he has the education and training. For example, a young person who is still in high school may only be qualified to work in a retail or a service environment. These tend to require fast-paced and frequent interactions with a wide range of clients of different temperaments, shifting from one task to another, and working in a physical environment that may be loud and bright. The person may be required to wear a uniform of a particular material, spend a certain amount of time standing, and lift a certain amount. If the person has sensory challenges with light, noise and certain materials, s/he will not be able to work too many hours a day at that job. If the same person becomes flustered working with one customer after another in rapid succession or if s/he will become distressed if s/he faces with an irate or otherwise “problem” customer, then she/he will not be able to handle all aspects of the job. If the person uses communication aids, s/he may not be able to manage a rapid back-and-forth with customers. If the person has any physical limitations, s/he may not be able to stand, walk, sit, lift or otherwise move the way the job requires. If the same person needs time to transition from one activity to another, then the person will be slower and less capable at a job that requires multitasking.

The third approach is to consider what accommodations the person’s current or potential employer might make. If this same person has to attend regular appointments, s/he will have limited availability. If the person has to monitor health and take medicines, s/he may need additional breaks. If the same person needs a job coach or a co-worker or supervisor to break down large tasks into small ones or if the person can do four out of five primary job requirements, but is excused from doing the fifth, then s/he has limited work capacity by definition.

My son packed his “Save the turtles” poster with five pieces of trash rather than just the ubiquitous plastic straw because he understands that emphasis drives empathy. Similarly, when you or a family member applies for disability benefits, you need to pack the application with every single limitation than can restrict your or her/his capacity to work.

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