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To Those Who've Been Reviewing My Disability Benefits Application for Over a Year

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To Whom It May Concern:

I am a young, seemingly vibrant 27 year old woman. I have a Master’s degree, am fluent in both English and Spanish, and have experience working a variety of jobs, ranging from retail to teaching at a university. I have many interests and abilities, including writing, reading, researching, working with kids and serving people in my community. And I am currently in a situation where I am destitute and desperate.

How can this be? Wouldn’t someone with my level of education, experience, and drive be able to get at least a decent job?

Well, there’s something else about myself that I haven’t mentioned yet. I am severely and debilitatingly disabled, with a myriad of confusing and frustrating issues I still desperately hope are solvable. It took a long time for me to swallow my pride and apply for disability benefits, which I did over a year ago, six months after I left the job I could no longer reliably show up for. That leaves me with a year and a half so far with absolutely no income, waiting to hear back from the disability office.

I’ve given them everything they could want — medical records, personal letters, exams from state sanctioned doctors. I’ve tried to work but have found myself completely unable, and the savings I had from the low-paying job I held before this are quickly drying up. It’s been over a year, and I have yet to receive a decision.

I find odd jobs here and there: translating documents, subbing for teaching programs, pet sitting. But my pain levels are high and my functionality and energy levels are low, so there’s nothing I’ve been able to do consistently, even working from home.

I am not lazy. I am not faking. I am suffering, and I am impoverished.

Meanwhile, I am unable to get any sort of health insurance, and rely on the volunteer services of free clinics that are poorly equipped to deal with the complicated nature of my issues. I pay for the treatments that aren’t covered at the free clinics with a crowdfunding page I created this past summer, pleading with my Facebook friends and anyone else who might see it to help me get medicine and treatments. I wait for months at a time to see specialists, who tell me the tests I need can’t be done without insurance, or that I have to wait months to see them again before they can do anything for me, or that nothing can be done.

I know many people believe the lies I believed before I found myself in this situation. We believe disability benefits are there to provide for those who can’t provide for themselves, and that people who are legitimately disabled can receive them. The only time anyone should be worried is if they’re not actually disabled. That’s why there are records and doctor’s appointments and checks and balances in the application process. The longer I wait for this process to be completed, the more I realize this isn’t true. Disability is extremely tedious and difficult to get on, regardless of how disabled or desperate you are. I’ve spoken to people with conditions far more severe than my own who say the same thing. If I didn’t have friends to take me in, I would have become homeless in the time I’ve been waiting. Many people do.

I’ve been told that with Obamacare, free or affordable healthcare is available to all. This is also a lie, but it’s largely my own state’s fault. When I moved to Tennessee from New Mexico, I forfeited my right to healthcare. Tennessee rejected the Medicaid expansion, meaning able-bodied adults with little to no income have no shot at getting health insurance. The cheapest plans in the healthcare marketplace here still run around $500 a month, which is impossible for those of us without any income. Yes, there is a provision for disabled adults, but if I can’t get on disability I don’t count as a disabled adult by Tennessee Medicaid’s standards, even though I have been officially certified as disabled through vocational rehabilitation services as well as the DMV. I’m not sure if I’ll even be able to get on it if I do get disability benefits, but at this point that’s such a pipe dream it barely matters.

I’ve been told that people who legitimately need help can get it, and everyone else is just lazy, fraudulent, or freeloaders. This is a lie. For one thing, it takes so much work to get and keep any kind of government benefits that I doubt anyone doing so is “lazy.” For another thing, getting cash benefits is nearly impossible for childless adults. The only thing they’d get by “freeloading” is food stamps, which can only buy groceries, and maybe a phone plan, although so far I haven’t been able to get one. The limits for both disability and food stamps prevent individuals who don’t qualify for an ABLE account from having over $2,000 in resources at any given time, making significant long-term savings impossible. The amount you receive is meager, especially if you have any sort of income, and with many of these programs you are prevented from leaving the country or even state for more than a month at a time. Meanwhile, you get stigmatized and judged for trying to do whatever you can to make ends meet.

There’s no upward mobility for people in need. There’s no hope at a better life. There’s just the hope of staying alive.

And for me, that hope still lies far, far away.

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Getty image by Grinvalds.

Originally published: January 15, 2018
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