The emails have been arriving steadily. Subject line: ‘Thought you might be interested in this’ ‘Have you seen NPR’s story on disability?’ ‘Thoughts on this?’ ‘Saw this, thought of you’ ‘WTF is wrong with this story?!’ ‘Wait, how much of this is actually accurate?’ The content is sometimes just a single link, to This American Life’s six-part series on disability in America, picked up by Planet Money and All Things Considered. Sometimes there are a few lines of commentary, but not usually.
In a nutshell, the series tells listeners that the number of people on disability in the United States are skyrocketing, and that this is due to some sort of stealthy scheme to work the system.
And people on all sides of the political divide, but especially the right, are eating it up, despite the flood of stories attempting to counter the numerous factual, ethical, journalistic, and social problems with this story, how it’s reported, and how Chana Joffe-Walt chose to interpret the data available to her. It’s quite clear that she went looking for a particular story and conclusion, and she got exactly what she wanted. In the process, she contributed to familiar hateful rhetoric about disability in the United States, and what it means to be disabled.
Scroungers. Sucking off the government teat. Fakers. Lazy. Slackers.
The fact: Yes, more people are on disability than ever before. That’s absolutely true, but there are a lot of reasons for that, and they aren’t as simplistic as what Joffe-Walt seems to want us to think. She suggests that states and low-income people are in collusion to get people enlisted on the disability rolls, that disabled people don’t work, that disability has essentially become a replacement for other benefits programmes, that changes in disability guidelines have resulted in more lax standards. While she doesn’t come out and say it, the subtext is crystal clear: There are fakers on the rolls.
But let’s take a look at some demographics here, because, as the Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities point out in their response to the piece, demographics account for the changes in disability benefits enrollment, rather decisively. For starters, 20% of the US population is disabled, and an estimated 10% have ‘severe’ disabilities, like those that might make someone unable to work at all, or able to work only in a limited capacity. Given the overall distribution of people on disability benefits (less than 5% of the US population) in the US, it’s clear that there are some people who aren’t on the rolls who probably should be, rather than the other way around. That number is indeed shifting over time, but not for the reasons cited; it’s not that standards are relaxed and people are faking.
The boomer generation is aging, for one thing, which means more and more people are entering old age, and they’re starting to experience the disabling conditions that can come with aging for many older adults. Advances in medicine have also, of course, improved survival rates for older adults, which means more people are living after major medical events, and more people are requiring more advanced care. For younger disabled people, the same medical advances have improved lifespans and quality of life for people with conditions once deemed fatal at an early age; it’s a good thing that more people are living, and living well, not evidence of a bad thing.
And this is a country in the grip of an economic downturn. An analysis at the Center for Economic and Policy Research notes that, yes, the cost for Social Security Disability has in fact exploded, in correlation with the economy. Projections from the trustees’ reports also indicate that once the employment rate stabilizes, these rates should go back down. With a shrinking safety net, people are turning to whatever support they can find to survive.
People who would have otherwise been employed find themselves desperate for any means of support due to the inept economic policy that sank the economy. This is a simple explanation that doesn’t require examining the moral turpitude of beneficiaries or evidence of corrupt or negligent administrators. Fix the economy and you would remove much of the burden on the program.
Notably, this doesn’t mean the increasing rolls equate to a bunch of fakers. Disabled people work, and many (like myself) actually prefer to work; but when we’re squeezed out of jobs due to a poor economy and the pressure of employment discrimination (which employees do you think companies drop first?), we’re forced onto disability benefits if no other options are available. Which brings me to Disability Insurance (DI), another programme discussed in the report. One of the reasons claims on DI are rising? Because there are more women in the workforce, which, yes, means the pool of potential claimants is larger. Again, women in the work force is a good thing.
Furthermore, the distribution of disabled people in the US is actually quite variable, and dependent on a lot of factors. In rural communities, access to health care is limited, and people are more likely to acquire serious disabilities as a result of having to wait for treatment, having difficulty with access to preventative care, and working in potentially dangerous occupations like farming and logging. Meanwhile, industrial areas come with numerous dangerous jobs, along with pollution that exposes neighbouring communities to further dangers. It should come to no surprise to learn that these communities also tend to be low-income, and many of them are also heavily populated by people of colour.
Education also has a profound effect on whether people are able to work, and keep working, after disability. Those with higher levels of educational attainment can obtain desk jobs and other work that’s not as taxing, making it possible for them to work while disabled or to return to work after accidents and injuries. For those who haven’t graduated high school or who have barely achieved high school qualifications, though, the options are thinner; working with your body is often the only option, and it’s difficult to return to work on a factory line or in a harsh environment with back pain, joint damage, and other physical disabilities.
This makes it unsurprising that ‘one in four’ people in the single county Jaffe-Walt used as the basis for her story were on the rolls. In fact, I would have been more surprised if her results had come up with a substantially lower number; demographically, I would expect that number to pop up, because all the indicators for that region point towards a higher incidence of disability than the US average.
As John Bouman pointed out in his critique of the series: ‘Joffe-Walt never examines the issues through what should be an obvious lens — what if virtually all of the people receiving disability benefits are actually disabled or medically unable to work? The real problem is not why so many people get disability benefits, but why so many people are disabled.’
He cuts to the heart of the problem with a lot of assumptions in media about disability. The media assume that disability is exaggerated and people seize on excuses to lie back and enjoy the pleasures of government benefits, despite the fact that disability benefits create a state of enforced poverty, about which more in a moment, and that many people are denied repeatedly, and have trouble navigating the system on their own, making it functionally impossible to get the benefits they’re entitled to. The United States is facing a crisis of health care, especially when it comes to preventative care, early identification and treatment, and followthrough after major medical events.
It’s no wonder that this country has a high disability rate overall; and people should indeed be asking why this is instead of fingering disabled people as leeches on the system, draining benefits funds dry. Paralyzed Veterans of America noted that this report, like others on disabled people, also contributed to the significant stigma against people with non-evident disabilities, like mental health conditions, autoimmune disorders, cognitive and intellectual disabilities, brain injuries, and other disabilities that are not necessarily immediate recognisable to the untrained eye.
NPR’s logic on this issue dismisses the millions of Americans who may look healthy but have severe disabilities, including disabled veterans.
People with non-evident disabilities are accustomed to being mocked, belittled, and swept under the carpet by the media, but reports like these are a sharp reminder that the media are extremely uneducated when it comes to disability issues (Jaffe-Walt is not a disability expert, nor were any interviewed for this series), and has little interest in self-education. Consequently, harmful messages about the nature of non-evident disabilities are perpetuated in stories like these, leaving listeners, viewers, and readers with the perception that ‘disability’ fits within a very narrow and easily-understood definition, and everyone else must be faking for those sweet benefits.
About which. It’s extremely difficult to get disability benefits in the United States (many people need the assistance of an attorney), and when you do get them, there are significant restrictions on your way of life. Typically work can force you to be dropped from benefits (if you make more than a certain amount, for example), and the amount of the payments doesn’t keep pace with the cost of living; a $700 monthly check is hardly princely. Disabled people can struggle to stay alive in an expensive world while the government denies claims for things needed for basic quality of life; the structure of the disability benefits systems in the United States tends to keep people trapped in their homes, prefers institutionalisation over community-based living (even though community-based living is actually less expensive), and further marginalises disabled people.
This is not a lifestyle choice. It’s something you do because you have no other options. And, contrary to Jaffe-Walt’s claims, 21% of disabled people in the US, including people receiving benefits, work. That number could be a lot higher without rampant disability discrimination making it difficult to find and keep work.
This was brought up in sharp criticisms of the story after Ira Glass hotly defended the fact checking. Shawn Fremstad pointed out that fundamental journalistic errors in the piece were not only factually incorrect, but also socially irresponsible because of the messages they conveyed. Depicting disabled people as unemployed scroungers, for example, and radically misreading statistical analysis, resulted in a very negatively skewed picture of disability. Hannah Groch-Begley at Media Matters for America also took a close look at the story, debunking the section on children and disability.
The reporting in that segment was actually bitterly reminiscent of an absolutely horrific Nicholas Kristof column that ran in the New York Times last year, portraying parents in one of the poorest and hardest-hit regions of the country as monsters exploiting their children for disability benefits. In addition to being riddled with errors, the piece also sent some extremely dangerous messages about disability benefits for children (something which, incidentally, play a major role in pulling US children out of poverty).
After the tide of negative commentary about the piece, including detailed debunking of the errors, one by one, while Ira Glass continued to stand proud behind his fact checking, NPR actually stealthily revised sections of the story. This certainly speaks to an admission of wrongdoing, although the minimal publicity around the changes shows that NPR had no interest in publicly apologising for the harm done by the bad journalism. While the changes might look minor, and NPR claims they were made ‘for clarity,’ they’re actually major, and they significantly change the style and tone of the piece.
There’s a big difference between ‘People on federal disability do not work’ and ‘The vast majority of people receiving federal disability benefits do not work’ (gee, maybe because…they’re disabled?), for example. These subtle and important distinctions shift the presentation of the story dramatically, and definitely undermine the scaremongering Jaffe-Walt was going for in the original script.
This is the state of disability journalism in the US. Harmful, error-riddled stories that propagate false mythologies about disability, don’t acknowledge the complexity of disability, fail to account for the multitude of factors involved, and don’t consult a single disability expert. This is lazy, bad journalism and I would expect better of a national-level organisation that happens to be highly renowned for the quality, breadth, and detail of its coverage. The fact that right-wing media are jumping on this report and heaping it with praise is an indicator of how skewed and dangerous it is: it provides an ideal argument for dismantling the social safety net, and no actual information about disability in the United States and the health and disability crisis that is gripping this country.
Which is a pity, because we could use some good, solid disability journalism right about now.
Shame on you, NPR.