By Michael Rock
On March 26, 2019, a former FedEx employee from Middletown, New York was arrested after being discovered in a kickboxing class after claiming he was unable to do his job following a disabling injury. Before his detention, he stole over $9,000 worth of Workers’ Compensation benefit payments.
According to the Social Security Administration, disability fraud costs them $3.4 billion per year. In order to counter the issue of fraud, the Trump Administration has proposed spying on the social media accounts of people who collect disability benefits to ensure that they actually need them.
Disability advocates deeply oppose this plan, saying that determining whether social media content was recorded before or after the disability emerged is very difficult. They also highlight that social media users generally do not post content of themselves at their most vulnerable. As a result, social media platforms tend to be a weak indicator of the extent of any disabilities users have.
Another limit to social media in determining the extent of someone’s disability is the fact that not all disabilities are obvious to outside observers. Bipolar disorder and lupus are just two examples of conditions whose sufferers qualify for Social Security benefits despite being virtually unobservable through social media.
Some advocates propose looking beyond the immediate issue of disability benefits fraud and addressing the reason why such benefits are needed in the first place – the high unemployment rate of people with disabilities. In order to combat this inequity, they suggest combatting the stigma people with disabilities face in the workforce by educating employers on the benefits of hiring people with disabilities, including addressing many myths and misconceptions about disability in the workforce.
Another type of disability fraud has become a major news story over the past few weeks, after it was discovered that numerous wealthy and famous families bribed people to feign diagnoses of learning disabilities so their children could get SAT and ACT accommodations to help them get into elite universities that would otherwise not admit them.
Many disability advocates and families of people with disabilities fear that the scandal will create a backlash that will make it harder for students with actual disabilities to get accommodations they need, as suspicions that applicants will lie about having a disability may increase. The fact that getting disability accommodations is already a difficult process and often leads to legal battles renders this scandal a further matter of concern.
Despite these challenges, misconceptions about accommodations for students with disabilities permeate the United States’ educational culture. Students with disabilities may be offended by them and see using them as a sign of weakness. Their classmates without disabilities may resent students who need them, perceiving such supports as a form of special treatment. In reality, they are crucial tools to help students with disabilities thrive in a system that wasn’t created with them in mind. Even when students who qualify access them, they often find that school faculty and staff are unsympathetic to their needs.
These challenges to accommodations access are especially difficult for low-income students with disabilities. Some, such as LA-based YouTube content creator Stevie Beobi, who has ADHD, did not even know about their legal entitlements as students with disabilities as indicated by such legislation as the Americans with Disabilities Act. In fact, people told Beobi that she was faking her symptoms for many years before she was able to educate herself.
It is clear that the United States has problems with disability fraud in its educational and social services sectors. However, denying people with actual disabilities their needs is not the way to address the issue. Instead, combatting the stigma of disability accommodations in school and addressing workplace inequalities that people with disabilities face so that they need not rely on government benefits as much are the best way to progress forward.
Michael Rock is a New York City-based reporter and self-advocate with autism. A graduate of Brandeis University, his work has appeared in Kings County Politics, Chelsea Now, Our Town, Queens County Politics, and WhoWhatWhy.