Let’s say a person named Mr. D has a chronic pain issue that affects his ability to perform his job—working on small planes—which he loves. Mr. D is out of work and receiving disability payments. Most days Mr. D is in pain. On a family trip planned long ago for Mr. D’s Dad’s 80th, he heads to Florida, intending to play golf with his Dad no matter how much it hurts. But after a few holes, Mr. D. humbly admits he can’t play. Depressed and frustrated, they leave the course, but as Mom pulls out her phone and snaps a shot, Mr. D smiles dutifully. Not thinking about the privacy of his account or the value the government might find in a family reunion photo, he posts the golf shot with Dad on Facebook.
But here’s the problem: According to the Social Security Administration (SSA) and President Trump, that parting shot could also be the end of your disability payments.
In the budget request to Congress in 2018, SSA is reportedly exploring the idea of using social media platforms, like Facebook, to determine if a person is truly disabled. (Note: If you insert the word Big Brother for President Trump that last sentence still makes perfect sense.)
The stated goal of using social media is to root out fraud and better the integrity of the program, according to a recent report in the New York Times. More than 10 million people receive Social Security disability insurance (SSDI) benefits totaling more than $11 billion a month. “It is important to note, improper payments is an SSA term in which fraud is included, but is not exclusively fraud. With less than 3% of all payments in 2017 regarded as improper, the incidence of fraud is not accurately known,” says Julie Sowash, senior consultant for Disability Solutions, a division of Ability Beyond. “Applying additional barriers to access funds Americans have paid in to through their payroll contributions to lower the incidence of fraud perpetuates harmful stereotypes about people with disabilities, including individuals with mental health disorders (like myself) whose disabilities are often not visible.”
Speaker and author Linea Johnson wondered how Facebook could be thought of as a reliable investigative tool. “The concept of investigating whether someone lives with a disability on social media is extremely concerning to me. First of all, in our modern world, everyone is presenting this almost Instagramable view of their lives,” she says. “There is a trend of only posting what is beautiful, fun, and exciting when that may be very far from someone’s reality. Whether they live with a disability or not.”
While the program is only now being fleshed out by SSA with the backing of President Trump (a final rule is expected in 2020) even the idea of snooping around on social media to determine if someone is truly disabled is galling. If you’re like many people, you don’t even know what you don’t know about disability benefits. Here’s a possible starting line:
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Learn What Disability Advocates and Allies Are Doing
The work of this administration is a jarring contrast to the positive work many in the disability advocacy community are doing. (This includes many people with disabilities and their allies.) Disability advocates are not looking for fraud, they’re focused on moving people forward, into meaningful jobs. Unemployment has been a huge focus in the past year at every level, from the global stage to community services. Recent statistics show that 80% of people who have a disability and are looking for working are unemployed. For advocates, working to put out practical, usable and clear information to help businesses employ people with disabilities, it’s like spraying a fire hose of bad intentions on a very good cause—ending the discriminatory old stigmas that perpetuate the idea that people with disabilities can’t or won’t work.
Start Changing the Conversation
Further coverage of the planned Facebook monitoring by Social Security is likely to spread the falsehood that people with disabilities don’t want to work. While it’s the media’s duty to report the news, the news does not have to be negative. In fact, the fewer who people focus on Social Security snooping and rally business owners, community leaders, and the media to understand how the pipeline to getting back to a job actually works, the better off everyone will be.
One strategy is to share stories of people with disabilities who are working at every level of employment and to avoid what many call “inspiration porn” about people with disabilities at work. As for where to share? LinkedIn is a good place to start. For instance, today Pride Industries posted, “Fact: people with disabilities do not cost more to employ are proven to meet or exceed challenges and have lower turnover rates.” Thank you, Pride Industries. There are so many more examples that talk about the real life of people with disabilities and are not meant to be inspiring or induce pity.
Offer Context. Not All Fraud Is The Same. Huge chunks of fraud can be attributed to people who are not disabled, hell bent on abusing the system. What kind of fraud am I talking about? According to the SSA’s Inspector General, in 2013 just over 1,500 deceased individuals in all age ranges were still receiving benefits. They account for only $15 million in improper benefit payments. A 2015 report found that there were 6.5 million active Social Security numbers for people over the age of 112 (only a slight number of them were connected with fraudulent claims, but who knows why they are in the system), according to the Committee For Responsible Federal Budget.
Bust Myths. Some businesses avoid inclusion and avoid hiring people with disabilities because they think of it as compliance, something they see as costly. Others may not be educated about the skills and strengths of this huge talent pool, simply because of their fear of the word disability. Neither of the above assumptions about people with disabilities is true.
Know The Facts About Benefits. Front and center on the Social Security Administration’s home page are these very clear statements about the value of disability insurance:
- Social security disability insurance is coverage that workers earn.
- “At the beginning of 2019, Social Security paid an average monthly disability benefit of about $1,234 to all disabled workers. That is barely enough to keep a beneficiary above the 2018 poverty level ($12,140 annually).”
Learn More About Ticket To Work.
According to the government website, “Often, people would like to re-enter the workforce but are afraid they might lose disability benefits if they try to get a job. If you are age 18 through 64 and receive Social Security disability benefits, you can participate in Social Security’s Ticket to Work program.” It continues by saying, “The Ticket to Work program allows you to receive free employment support services and take advantage of work incentives that make it easier to work and still receive benefits such as health care.”
“This is a critically underutilized program and mostly because most people do not know about it, says Sowash. “Many job seekers have no idea about these types of return to work programs. If you aren’t connected to the system, it is hard to know what is available to support a return to work.” Most people with disabilities and advocates agreed: Employment training and access to quality treatment and workplace inclusion are where they will be putting their efforts. Getting into epic battles over Facebook and privacy is not where advocates say they want to spend the little time they have helping people with disabilities return to work.