Recently the national media have been far too eager to throw those with disabilities under the bus. In a column for The New York Times, Frank Bruni decries the growth in the number of Americans receiving Social Security disability insurance (SSDI). He sees it as an outgrowth of our selfish culture, which encourages us to cut corners and maximize personal benefit instead of seeking the common good. He writes:
Over the last four decades, the number of Americans drawing Social Security disability insurance has more or less tripled, by some estimates. That well outpaces population growth and reflects not just a liberalization of the requirements to apply for such insurance but the readiness of some people who don't truly need it to finesse the criteria nonetheless.
There is a familiar pattern to the barbed attacks on the disabled as lazy or opportunist. They play with the facts to suit certain agendas. Bruni's connection between collecting SSDI and selfishness demonstrates his misunderstanding of the demographics of disability. He is right about the growth in benefits. There are more than 8.7 million disabled workers who draw SSDI today. That number has risen by more than 20 percent since the recession began. But the average monthly benefit is only a little more than $1,000, which is a great sacrifice in income for most workers. There is no great economic incentive to get on SSDI.
Then there is Bruni's assertion that the growth in SSDI outpaces population growth. Such a claim assumes that the number of people receiving benefits was ever in line with the number of people in the country with a disability. According to some estimates, there are more than 50 million people with a cognitive or physical disability. Yet only 8.7 million disabled workers receive SSDI. That our current system of disability insurance only pays out benefits to people who have worked enough to pay into the system is part of the reason for this disparity.
Many have noted that as unemployment benefits began running out as the recession progressed, more and more people began applying for disability insurance. What this indicates is not that people are taking SSDI to live the high life on the government dole, but that the working disabled are finding it increasingly hard to find employment or keep up with an increasingly fast-paced and competitive workplace as employers are less likely to hire more help.
Yet the national media tend to be ambivalent toward those with disabilities. When it is easy to do so, pundits and talking heads are sympathetic toward people with disabilities. When sharpening their spears to make a point, they are happy to launch into diatribes about the supposed laziness or selfishness of disabled people -- or even the absurdity in exploring their lives. Perhaps no one has been more divided on the issue than George F. Will. In a column late last year titled "Thanks for the absurd-but-true," Will writes incredulously:
In the year when Americans became aware that there is more student debt than credit-card debt, Yale offered a course on how people with disabilities are portrayed in fiction: "We will examine how characters serve as figures of otherness, transcendence, physicality or abjection. Later may come examination questions on regulative discourse, performativity and frameworks of intelligibility."
This was a strange note to strike as Will has often written about the fate of his own son, Jon Will, who has Down's Syndrome. As recently as May of this year, he wrote a column celebrating Jon's life and exploring his job in baseball at Nationals Park.
People with mental disabilities are constantly subjected to guilt by association. Roger Ebert, who has been quite candid about his own illness, saying, "We spend too much time hiding illness," is less thoughtful in a recent blog post after the shootings in Colorado over the weekend.
Lumping all people with mental illnesses together with the homicidal, he writes, "True, there is no way we can defend ourselves against insane shooters. But I suspect Australia, England, Germany and Canada have about the same percentage of crazy people that we do. It's just that they can't get their hands on firearms so easily." Similarly, David Brooks ends his column in The New York Times this week by writing "The truly disturbed have always been with us, but their outbursts are now taking more malevolent forms." Both writers ignore the fact that a very small number of people with even severe mental illness are violent. That both the liberal Ebert and the conservative Brooks muddle the facts shows that media's image of those with mental disabilities is just about the same, regardless of political affiliation.
Clearly we are a long way from treating the disabled as equal citizens. Part of the reason for this is related to the effects of disability. Because so many disabled people are disconnected from everyday life, including the great organs of the media, their voices are not often heard. It is incumbent on those who know people with a disability or have one themselves to speak up for their friends, family members and themselves by letting writers and pundits know when they distort the facts or make bold but unqualified associations. Having a physical or mental disability is already trying enough; the disabled shouldn't have to fight battles in ink as well.