A recent NPR series featured on “This American Life,” has caused a furor among disability advocates who believe that the stories provide a highly misleading overview of federal disability programs.
“Rather than waste time rehashing myths and sensationalizing understandable program trends, the priority should be on strengthening these vital programs to more effectively serve their missions: increasing economic security for people with severe disabilities, and enabling them to live independently and with dignity,” stated the Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities in a letter signed by more than 100 advocacy groups.
The six-part series, titled “Unfit for Work: The Startling Rise of Disability in America” focuses on the recent spike in applicants to the Social Security Disability Insurance and Supplemental Security Income programs, which now provide services to 14 million individuals. Since the most recent increase in applicants coincided with the economic recession, many commentators have speculated that applicants have taken advantage of the program who could otherwise work or do not have a severe disability.
The NPR series includes interviews with a variety of SSDI and SSI recipients, as well as traces the history of the program.
In CCD letter, disability advocates counter that the increase in applicants is due to demographic factors, namely baby boomers entering their “high disability years” and the increase of women in the 1970s and 1980s.
The advocates also seek to counter the narrative that the disability rolls consist of large numbers of undeserving members, noting that fewer than 40 percent of applicants are approved for benefits. Of particular ire for the advocates was the series’ perceived message that “doing poorly in school” can qualify you for SSDI or that the increase in recipients with mental disabilities is somehow illegitimate.
“Denial of such ‘invisible’ disabilities remains sadly common—and Ms. Joffe-Walt’s reporting on disability benefits epitomizes this denial,” the CCD letter states. “She questions whether individuals who ‘look healthy’ ought to be receiving disability benefits, and declares that disabilities visible to the naked eye (e.g., injuries suffered in a car crash) are ‘unambiguous’, whereas impairments less readily observable to an onlooker are ‘squishy.’ Is someone with cancer or a Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) less deserving of disability benefits than someone with a visible disability?”
Projections show that the SSDI trust fund will run out in 2016. However, disability advocates point out that the number of new recipients is actually starting to slow and that nonetheless, Congress has modified these programs in the past to improve their long-term solvency.
“While this story about Social Security and people with disabilities raises interesting questions, it’s also very incomplete, and perpetuates negative stereotypes and misunderstandings about people with disabilities,” the Arc said in a news release.