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You are here: Home Opinion Paula I. Bryant What really happens

What really happens

It seems every time I turn on a television, I see lawyers touting services and practically guaranteeing they can get their potential clients on Social Security disability. 

And how many times have you heard someone envy another person who receives disability benefits and no longer has to work “a real job.”

Angie Shepard, director of communications for the Virginia Legal Aid Society in Lynchburg, shared the following information about getting on disability.

Writing on behalf of the Health and Benefits Practice Group, she outlines just how difficult the process can be to become approved for disability benefits.

National Public Radio’s “This American Life” aired a report in March on the allegedly good life of people on disability and how easy it is to apply for and receive disability benefits from the Social Security Administration.  In the experience of attorneys and paralegals who represent clients seeking disability benefits, it is not a good life, and it is not easy to apply or to become eligible for those benefits. 

Most applications for Social Security disability are denied. 

According to Social Security Commissioner Michael J. Astrue last year, 68 percent of people who applied for disability in 2011 were initially denied. It can often take many months for individuals to receive the first denial.  

In the meantime, that individual has to find a way to survive.  Some are fortunate and may have a spouse, family member or friend who is willing and able to support them financially.  Others are not as fortunate and may have to move from person to person for assistance or may even have to survive on the streets because they have no income or anyone they can turn to for shelter. 

Another problem in the disability application process is having or obtaining  medical records.  Applicants cannot get disability benefits without having medical records that verify the disability, and, even then, that is not a guarantee of being found disabled.  

Medical treatment costs money. It is rare that anyone applying for Social Security disability has access to health insurance. Without health insurance, individuals may or may not be able to get medical attention through a local free clinic. If they can get  medical help,  transportation issues can arise.  Not everyone who is applying for disability has access to their own transportation, and if they do, may not have the money for the gas it takes to get to the medical appointments.  

Getting back and forth to medical treatment means relying on someone else or public transportation. Not all impoverished people have someone to provide transportation to them, or live in an area where public transportation is readily available. 

When the medical problem is severe enough that the individual has to be sent to a specialist or to a hospital outside of the area, the lack of transportation can prevent the individual from getting the needed treatment, and can result in added side effects or complications from the medical condition, thus potentially shortening the individual’s life. 

All these factors reduce the existence of medical documentation as well as appropriate medical treatment. 

When an applicant is initially denied, he or she can file an appeal referred to as a “Reconsideration.” Necessary forms and medical records need to be sent to the Social Security Administration. Again, this can be another several month process for a decision to be made, which can result in a denial as well. 

According to the same February 2012 letter, 88 percent of those initially denied who appealed, were denied again. Another appeal may be filed, asking for a hearing in front of an Administrative Law Judge. 

Only 58 percent of these individuals are found disabled.  

This process takes up to a year for an applicant to actually have a hearing.  At this point, a disabled individual has survived for two years, or more, without any income and perhaps running out of relatives and friends with whom to live.  

The applicant may well be denied by the Administrative Law Judge.  

Again, another appeal can be filed to the Appeals Council, where 74 percent were denied in 2011, or the individual can reapply.  

It will take the Appeals Council a year or more to review and affirm or deny the Administrative Law Judge’s decision. 

Contrary to the story about those seeking disability benefits, most individuals  are not willing to purposely put themselves through years of poverty, possibly not receiving needed medical treatment during this time, and relying on others for shelter, income and transportation, all for the possibility of being found disabled and eligible for a small amount of  benefits. 

In  2012, the average disabled worker received $1,113.00 per month according to social security fact sheets. 

Being disabled enough to qualify for Social Security disability benefits is not a lucrative life.  It is a life that prevents you from participating in activities as you once did.  It is a life that may keep you from engaging in many life functions because of impairments.   

Healthy workers should take time to gather the facts and then give thanks that they have the health and ability to work and enjoy their lives in a full and satisfying way.  

Social Security Disability is a resource by which disabled individuals can obtain more financial stability in their lives, but it is not a life to be envied.