The Disability Myth

Updated: May 21

The greatest myth I hear about disability is that “all these people out here are getting disability who don't deserve it!” Disability has a stigma within the general public that people receiving disability are actually capable of working. Every time that I hear this statement I have the same response. “If you know, and have proof, that someone on disability is capable of full time work, report them.” As a taxpayer, I do not want to pay for people to be on disability if they are capable of working. Similarly, I do not want to see people committing Medicare or TennCare fraud. If you have proof, bring it forward. They have a tip line set up to report such things.


In all the years I have been a disability representative, not once have I actually had someone call in a report. While my rather blunt response may seem harsh, it quickly breaks people of the spell of the media and good old fashion gossip wherein the myth that everyone on disability does not deserve it tends to thrive. If people think of it more objectively, they realize that they may know 10 people on disability and not a one of them is really capable of consistently working a 40 hour week.


Yes, there is fraud in the system. Any system of this size will have some amount of fraud. We try to eradicate it when we find it, and I do tell about half of the people who come to me, that they should pursue further education and retraining into something they are physically capable of doing. The public really should know that without medical evidence of limitations that preclude work, no one receives disability.


I have fought for people who need a cane to walk, people waiting for organ transplants, children born with Down Syndrome, people who cannot sit for more than a few minutes without their legs going numb, people on morphine pumps, schizophrenics, cancer patients, those with heart failure, etc. etc. etc. Each of these cases were denied at the initial level. Many of them were denied at reconsideration and had to wait nearly 3 years to receive their benefits. During that time, I have had to watch people lose their homes and their possessions. Some families break under the pressure and many end up with depression or stress related conditions.


Once people are approved for their disability they must suffer the ongoing stigma of being on disability. Members of the public may not know how much pain a claimant is in each moment. Most people become ashamed and reclusive in an attempt to hide their symptoms from the world. Some people have no choice but to keep trying to do whatever they can do for themselves as they have no one else to do it.


I have never heard someone say their long term plan was to be on disability. I am sure there are some out there, but I have never come across them. The story I hear time and time again is that they only wish they could get better and go back to work. A large part of a person's identity is wrapped up in their work. It is one of the first questions people ask when they meet someone new. People do not plan to be on disability when they are in their late 40's or early 50's. Most people never truly expect to stop working, believing they can work right on into their later years. These are the people most commonly and most harshly hit by disability. As a society, we owe it to every person to treat them with dignity and respect, regardless of their circumstances.


Maybe someday the myth about the purveyance of capable persons throughout the Social Security Disability system will be busted and people who need the help will not be ashamed to pursue benefits under the system. Until then, I will continue to speak out for those with disabilities, injuries, and birth defects who need help. Although Social Security was not originally planned as a disability support system, it has grown into this role over the years due to the overwhelming need. If you need help, never be afraid or ashamed to ask.


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