Cost Saving Measures

August 5, 2013

I’m disabled. It’s an insidious disability though, an invisible disability that isn’t easy to diagnose. It’s a disability that causes muscle pain, joint pain, fatigue, and a near constant haze that causes me to forget things and, sometimes, completely zone out. I’ve spent as long as an hour trapped in an unfocused, unaware state where I could interact with the world around me but I had no real cognizance of where I was, who I was, or what I was doing. The first time this happened, I was driving. I destroyed a freeway on ramp sign and struck the side of someone’s car.

To say that this is an act would imply that I am a far better method actor than I feel reasonably comfortable accepting. I cannot do Othello, so I’m pretty sure I cannot do “invisibly disabled young man.”

That accident was over two and a half years ago. I was unemployed at the time, and shortly afterward I became homeless. Given that my entire history of employment was in Information Technology, a skill set that requires a lot of typing, it obviously would not work well with the fact that my hands had deteriorated to the point where I needed to take frequent breaks to get through short paragraphs. This has affected me while I’ve written these words, in fact. I had to pause in the middle of the last three sentences to crack my knuckles and let my muscles rest to avoid excruciating pain.

Here’s the best part, though – I’ve lived in poverty my entire adult life, and I haven’t seen a doctor since before I started high school. I have no medical history as an adult, either of my normal problems (back pain, neck pain, asthma) from before I became disabled or the development of the disability. I only know that it’s (probably) fibromyalgia from the fact that my mother suffers from the exact same condition and was diagnosed with it when it was called fibrositis. So when I started down the path to get disability assistance, so I could stop being homeless and suffering, I knew it would be a bit of an uphill battle.

I did not, however, account for the Social Security Agency’s nefarious cost saving measures.

In April, I went to my first in-person hearing for my appeal. As everyone is denied in the first round, from what everyone says (even inside the SSA), it was expected that I had to appeal. They sent me to a doctor that completely ignored my arthritic condition and just saw that I had all my limbs, that my neck wasn’t terribly malformed, and decided I must be healthy. In the hearing, the adjudication judge at the ODAR seemed impressed with how my joints cracked and sympathetic to the fact that I couldn’t work because of it. In the Hypothetical Scenario section of the hearing, the second and third hypothetical situations essentially left me without employment of any kind. The first hypothetical left me with either working retail or doing reception work. I was fairly confident that I would be confirmed as disabled or, at the very least, the appeal would be a little easier to pursue.

I was supposed to receive the decision within sixty days. It’s normally supposed to be thirty days, but the ODAR was very backed up according to the judge. I called the ODAR in July, on July 3rd in fact, and I was told that the case had been closed that day and I should receive it in the mail in the next week. As I still haven’t received it (this being the fifth of August), I decided to call the ODAR today to find out where the decision is. Apparently it was mailed on June third. It wasn’t returned and my father, who collects my mail, never received it. Luckily, they’re sending a new copy of the decision to my current address.

Now, let’s go over the time line again. I was unemployment after I lost my job, but that ended a year ago. So I’ve been without income for a year, going through this disability application process the entire time. It took six months to even get into a hearing room. The hearing itself didn’t come with an immediate decision, that took two months to generate. A decision that never reached me, which means I have not had the ability to respond to it in a timely fashion. A year during which I have been homeless. I have been poor. I have frequently been hungry. A year where a single person has accepted most of the financial burden for ensuring I do not simply starve to death. A year where I have had to move all of my possessions myself between the places I could sleep. I was able to couch surf, but that’s no walk in the park when you’re disabled in a way that magnifies joint and back pain. I have had to work the occasional day doing home repairs, days that left me exhausted and in pain for days afterward, to have any money of my own.

This year has illuminated the chief cost saving measure of the Social Security Administration in regards to its disability application process – I am sure now that they’re hoping that I die, in some unfortunate circumstance, so that they do not have to award me the disability that I paid into. That I helped support. The programs that I helped vote to keep and have campaigned to expand even before I was disabled. Given that the SSA has known that I was homeless, and that I was on SNAP (that’s food stamps to most people, and those I have been forced to reapply for since I no longer qualify according to a letter my father got last month). They know I have not had medical access for over a decade. All of this is in my file.

It’s clear that in order to avoid giving me the money I need to survive they’re taking as long as bureaucratically possible, using the excuse that when I am awarded I’ll receive pay going back to when I was identified as disabled…though unless I can convince someone in the payment processing center to give it to me right away, I won’t receive it for a year. Another year I have to tell my student loan processor that yes, I am disabled. No, I cannot see a doctor. Another year where bills that have come up while I’m disabled, money I’ve borrowed to not simply starve, people who have bought things for me that I’ve needed, go unpaid. A year of having just enough money to not die, instead I get to watch what’s left of my credit and legal personhood is destroyed by creditors.

These are situations, mind, that are known to cause suicides. Which would be convenient for Social Security – they wouldn’t have to pay me, and it wouldn’t be their fault, right? They’re just processing the system using the laws they were given. Using the budget that’s been passed. Meanwhile, I’m suffering literally every day trying to navigate this system, a system built for lawyers who exploit the disabled by pursuing disability claims using systems only they have reasonable access to in order to get some of the state’s settlement money in payment.

I have to work through this, however, because I need that money. I have to dance to their tune if I want to be able to support myself in any fashion – even if I could sell my writing, even if I suddenly generated a legion of fans who donated money to me every month to ensure my bills are paid and I can eat, letting me write and work on the things that I can contribute to everyone else, there will still be days, weeks, months even where I am incapable of working. When I will need not just the money from Social Security but also the access to disability services. To doctors who treat the poor and disabled. To transportation systems that service those who cannot get to the (inadequate) buses in Orange County and cannot afford the cab services here. Until I get the settlement, as well, it is unlikely I will be comfortable enough to be able to write enough to be published, get a part time job, or find a legion of fans who can help me every month. I was amazed at seeing friends and friends of friends reaching out for my deposit, to ensure that I won’t be homeless, but I cannot ask for that kind of support every month. It’s too much, from too many people, who I am sure are not in much better places.

To many people, this is a sad story. A story that they are sympathetic to, but feel like there’s no way to help. This is my life, though. My every day experience. This is the life, or a better version of the life, of many people who are disabled. People who deserve our help, people who suffer as public assistance programs like Social Security go underfunded and are mired in laws designed to keep people who are “healthy” from “exploiting” the system. A worry that has, as of yet, not shown to be a statistical issue. A system that, by trying to keep ne’er-do-well exploiters out has encouraged people in my situation to give up due to hopelessness. A system that, from any rational perspective, seems to encourage my death to avoid helping me.

A system that is so labyrinthine that only lawyers can really navigate it – despite supposedly being accessible to anyone with a disability. A system that doesn’t have enough employees to properly go through the requests for support. A system that has artificial barriers preventing multiple entities within the same agency from working with the same data. A system that is designed to encourage false negatives rather than false positives, which leaves people to starve and suffer when it’s totally unnecessary. A system that makes crime look attractive because I would be treated better in prison than I am here because there is no support here. A system that asks those who are least able to help me, those people in my immediate context, rather than do what it was created to do. A system built on a philosophy so flawed that even our soldiers, returning from war, who are disabled have waited as long as three years for support despite having clear medical histories from their service.

At the risk of angering Constitutional scholars, I’d like to point to the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution –

“Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.”

There is no stipulation here about it being in regards to criminal or civil prosecution. It follows two Amendments that state explicitly “in all criminal prosecutions…” and “In Suits at common law…”, but this amendment contains no explicit direction to being only applicable to legal proceedings. It states, simply, that no one in America shall be required to provide excessive bail, no excessive fines will be levied against them, and cruel and unusual punishments are forbidden. In any course. In any situation. In any context.

So why, given the Bill of Rights and the obvious sympathy for the plight of those that escaped the oppressive classes in England displayed in many of the arguments that created this Amendment and the Constitution itself, do we permit people to exist in my situation?

If being in a social position where I cannot work, where I have been homeless, where I have been hungry, where crime and suicide look like better options, is not cruel or unusual, what is it?

And if it isn’t unusual, is this the kind of standard that we want to encourage? Are we okay with a state of affairs that encourages the poor and disabled to kill themselves or commit crimes for basic survival?

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