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CLS Blog: Helping People with Disabilities Survive and Thrive

CLS Blog: Helping People with Disabilities Survive and Thrive

Imagine having bones so brittle that they crack every time you turn your neck or shift around in your seat.

That is what Mr. D experiences. 

Mr. D is a 52-year-old man who has been battling sarcoidosis for over ten years.  Sarcoidosis is an inflammatory disease that attacked Mr. D’s lungs and liver, and it required him to undergo a liver transplant surgery ten years ago.  That is when he nearly died from blood loss.  Fortunately, he did not.

To treat his liver and prevent rejection, Mr. D had to take medication that severely weakened his bones and caused him to develop osteoporosis and arthralgia.  Due to his weakened bones, Mr. D also developed two compression fractures in his spine that caused him to shrink in height.

In addition to his constant pain, he also suffers from respiratory issues.  His chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and chronic bronchitis cause him to become short of breath and have trouble breathing.  His respiratory problems are so bad that he must use three different types of inhalers or medication every day.

In 2005, Mr. D began receiving Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits.  However, ten years later, the Social Security Administration (SSA) erroneously tried to terminate Mr. D’s benefits after reviewing his file. 

SSI is one of several types of benefits administered by SSA.  It is a companion program Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI), for people who have paid into the Social Security system with earnings.  SSI benefits are for people who lack work history, often because they have a lifelong disability that has prevented them from sustaining a full-time job. 

SSI is needs-based; it is only available for people who are very poor and have limited income.

How limited is “limited”?  An SSI recipient can only have a limit of $2,000 in assets per month.  For a couple, that asset limit is $3,000.  No one is becoming rich from receiving SSI benefits, to say the least.

At CLS, we prioritize three types of cases.  Those are: children’s cases; cases for clients with serious barriers such as limited English proficiency, refugee status, or severe trauma; and continuing disability review (CDR) cases like Mr. D’s.  CDRs are cases in which SSA already found the individual to have a disability in the past but is reconsidering their eligibility years later.  

CLS prioritizes these types of cases because it is generally harder for our clients to obtain private counsel.  Many of our clients have been referred from one place to another, and they do not know where else to turn.  These cases are often viewed as more complicated and time-intensive, and they require sophisticated, high-level lawyering to delve into the medical intricacies, which CLS is willing and able to provide.

The maximum amount of SSI benefits that someone can receive in 2018 is $750 a month.  (In 2019, that amount is increasing to $771 due to a cost-of-living adjustment.)  While $750 a month may not seem like a lot of money to some people, it makes a huge difference in our clients’ lives.  

All of our clients are low-income, and many of them deal with an overwhelming number of legal issues on top of their daily challenges.  Some of our clients are homeless.  Some are fortunate enough to be able to live with family members who can provide some support while they try to get back on their feet, but the day to day realities of living with disabilities can be a strain for their families.

SSI provides a stable source of income that people can live on, and it can transform people’s lives.

Unfortunately, there is a huge backlog for those waiting for an SSI hearing - up to two years.  Philadelphia has had the longest average wait for a hearing nationally.  This long wait means that some of our clients with disabilities have even passed away before their hearing happened.  This is devastating and unacceptable.  

Over the past several years, CLS has worked on national advocacy to decrease the backlog.  Partly due to the pressure that our advocates and clients have put on SSA and Congress, the backlog is gradually starting to decrease.  In Philadelphia, our three local hearing offices have gotten an additional nine judges – more than any other jurisdiction in the country – due to CLS’s advocacy, and the advocacy of one of our clients, Adrianne, who bravely shared her story.  Still, the wait is too long.

Mr. D appealed his denial because he was still disabled.  As his representative, we worked to obtain medical records that were very important to Mr. D’s case.  We pored through the medical records and worked with Mr. D to understand the most pertinent factors and advocated on his behalf before the judge.  At the hearing, the judge found that Mr. D was still disabled.  After having reviewed all of the evidence, including our pre-hearing statement which summarized the dense medical records into a succinct argument, the judge focused on a 2015 evaluation.  In that evaluation, SSA’s own doctor who examined Mr. D noted that Mr. D was “too weak” to lift or carry anything, could only sit for 25 minutes at a time, and could only walk for five minutes at a time.  The judge said that SSA should have recognized years ago that Mr. D’s conditions had not improved rather than try to terminate his benefits and make him wait nearly two years for a hearing to prove his case. 

As a result, Mr. D now has the peace of mind knowing that his SSI benefits will continue.  He can continue to maintain a stable source of income to supplement his inability to work due to his disabilities.  Furthermore, Mr. D will continue to have a long-term connection to medical care to treat his disabilities.

Legal services are vital to ensuring that people with disabilities can get the life-sustaining income and support they need. From successful systemic advocacy, to winning the majority of our SSI cases, despite the fact that most people are not approved for SSI, CLS proudly helps people keep and maintain their SSI benefits. Because of our work, people like Mr. D can avoid homelessness and institutionalization, afford basic necessities, and not just survive, but thrive.