A few months ago, public radio did a report on disability benefits in America. The reporter, Chana Joffe-Walt, argued that more and more poor and unemployed people who were not disabled and who should have been getting welfare from individual states were drawing Federal disability benefits. She gave the impression that anyone could get SSDI just by going before a judge and asking for it. Nobody from a disability advocacy group was interviewed, nor were any disability scholars or disability lawyers. The ADA and the fact that many disabled people are out of work because employers refuse accommodations, requiring for example that cashiers stand up all day, were not mentioned. The struggle of having repeatedly to prove to the Social Security Administration that, say, one still has MS in order to get benefits was ignored. The fact that a person has chronic back pain that makes them unable to do any of the jobs available in their region was framed as a case of unemployment but not disability. But the story gained enormous traction and is still circulating and being built upon, feeding into the myth that there’s an epidemic of fraud.
Here’s some rebuttals. Our friend s.e. smith collects a bunch of challenges to public radio’s claims in a link-rich post called “NPR Joins Liberal Attacks on Disabled People.” Media Matters, as ever, takes on conservative versions of the narrative in “Myths and Facts Behind the Campaign to Attack Disability Benefits.” The Columbia Journalism Review was not happy with the report’s use of selective and misleading data and linked to other critiques as well.
So although I think Tammy Duckworth did a great job with Castillo, I’m not sure about her “People like you are why disability benefits are in danger.” It seems to me that cheats and fraudsters, appalling as they are, aren’t chiefly to blame for the attacks on the idea of disability benefits. As we’ve seen in discussions on this blog, there’s plenty of people who just don’t want disabled people to exist; and there’s surely plenty more who aren’t necessarily hateful in that way but who don’t want disabled people to receive state support. And many who don’t care but like a sensational news story to spice up their lives. Sure, actual fakery is part of what makes people suspicious — but look at what one commenter on the s.e. smith post says about the atmosphere in the U.K.: propaganda and media campaigns may also be engines of unwarranted and harmful suspicion.
ETA: O SIXTY MINUTES NO (again, a nice collection of supporting links at the bottom)