Recently a friend of mine was challenged to disclose the reason she has a legally-obtained handicapped license plate. To those who confronted her, she did not appear as though she deserved a handicapped parking space. Her disability is invisible, yet fatal. Being forced to disclose the reason for her permit to complete strangers was humiliating. She just wanted to enjoy a nice outing with her family while she is still able.
This isn’t the first time I’ve heard about such incidents.
While there will always be small-minded trolls, the backlash against invisible disabilities seems to be growing. It gets worse when politicians join in. In January 2015, Senator Rand Paul made it clear that he was among those who doubted the veracity of nearly half of all those currently receiving Social Security Disability Income (Kessler, Washington Post).
“What I tell people is, if you look like me and you hop out of your truck, you shouldn’t be getting a disability check. Over half of the people on disability are either anxious or their back hurts – join the club. Who doesn’t get a little anxious for work and their back hurts? Everybody over 40 has a back pain. And I am not saying that there are not legitimately people who are disabled. But the people who are the malingerers are the ones taking the money away from the people who are paraplegic, quadriplegic. You know, we all know people who are horrifically disabled and can’t work, but if you have able bodied people taking the money, then there is not enough money for the people who are truly disabled.”
The worst part about this statement is that he should know better. As a member of Congress, it is his job to oversee the budget. Social Security programs are a part of the national budget and are funded by payroll taxes earmarked specifically for retirement and disability. In 2014, the trustees of Social Security released the results (Trustess Report, SSA.gov) of an investigation into fraud, waste, and abuse of Social Security benefits. The investigation revealed that less than 0.02% of all benefits were fraudulent. Contrary to Senator Paul’s statement, malingering is not widespread within the Social Security program. In fact, the Social Security Administration does an excellent job of screening applicants and monitoring for fraud (Protecting your Investment, SSA.gov). Nobody is “taking money away from” those more deserving because the disability application process is so rigorous.
What Social Security staff know that Senator Paul and others like him seemed to have missed is that disabilities include a lot more than just paraplegia or quadriplegia. In fact, some people with paraplegia have greater ability to work than those with less obvious disabilities. Disability benefits are awarded based on a person’s ability to work. Those whose symptoms are severe enough to prevent them from working any type of job generally qualify for benefits. Many people with disabilities are able to work and excel at their jobs. They do not need, nor do they apply for, SSDI. Among those who apply, not all are approved. Many applicants spend years going through the appeals process before finally receiving benefits (Faces and Facts, SSA.gov).
Disability status is protected information
The Health Information Protection and Portability Act (Health Information Privacy, HHS.gov) protects patients from being forced to disclose information about their disability to anyone. If you are disabled, you are not required to justify your disability status to self-appointed “disability police”. That information is private and protected by law. You may grant written permission for the release of limited information. You may also rescind that permission (in writing) at any time. No one has the right to demand you explain what justifies your access to SSDI, SSI, handicapped parking, or any other disability-related benefit.