Thoughts On Disability From A Guy Who Should Be On It

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 14.472% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

When I first read NPR’s “Unfit for Work: the startling rise of disability in America,” it told me something I did not know: we haven’t actually reduced welfare costs in America.
Yes, we’ve managed to give less money via welfare to people who aren’t working… but disability costs have skyrocketed in recent years.  And if you add the two together, it looks like a lot of people who were once on welfare have shifted to disability.  And, so NPR argues, there’s a lot of cahoots among the folks who grant disability payments to only give those payments to the poorest and most deserving.
This fact has, crazily enough, created a backlash among liberals, who are furious that NPR – NPR! – would join the “liberal attacks” on the disabled.  To quote Tiger Beatdown, “…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.”
But I read that same story a week or two ago, and I saw none of that.  And perhaps that’s because at this point in time, I should be (temporarily) disabled.
For those who are new here, I am a forty-three-old programmer who had a heart attack, and a triple-bypass surgery, about ten weeks back.  Having a triple bypass is tough on the body; they crack your chest open like  crab, breaking every single rib in the process, and then shove your lungs up and around so it takes about six weeks to get your breathing back. Even now, I still have problems lifting heavy objects (lest I strain the still-fragile ribs, which may not fully heal for another three months) and experience chronic exhaustion from the beta blockers.
And when I was in the Cardiac ICU, one of the case workers came up to me and said, “You’re going to need to take three months off from work. File the paperwork now. Get it in before they can deny you.”
Three months? I thought, being a fairly healthy person before that.  What the hell could possibly render me unable to work for three months?  And I trusted my job, who had done right by me for the thirteen (!) years I’d been working for them, and failed to file.
I thought I’d be back working full-time in three weeks.  And while I was working part-time at four weeks, it took me until six weeks out until I’d say I was really back on the clock.
So those foolish, greedy bastards at the hospital just wanted me to suck at the teat of my employer, right?  They were encouraging lazy slackers everywhere!  Forcing my job to subsidize lazy wretches like me!
My job consists of sitting at a keyboard and thinking.  That’s because I was lucky enough to have some connections and some college, and I lucked into a white-collar desk job.  But before that, for a good eight years, my job consisted of working retail – which, inevitably, consists of standing on my feet for eight hours a day and lifting heavy boxes.
I still could not do that.  I’ve recovered astonishingly quickly by heart patient standards, but if my job depended on me heaving around thirty-pound boxes of the latest Tom Clancy hardback?  I’d be fucked.  I’d be lying in front of the television, sweating the countdown, because at this point I’d have two weeks to go and if I couldn’t manage it by then, what the fuck would happen to me?
Now, admittedly, that’s just my temporary sojourn into the Land of the Disabled, and I’m lucky enough to get to walk out after a while.  But that was a constant worry, even when I was young and hale and twenty-five: what if I threw out my back?  Working for Borders, there were a lot of older guys with braces, chewing Advil like it was their last chance, wincing.  And management, who was kind back in those days of well-managed Borders stores, found ways to work the system – shifting these less-physically able folks to slower-paced jobs when they didn’t have to, moving them to the cash register while the rest of us hauled hundreds of pounds of books back and forth.  We all silently agreed we’d pick up the slack, if we could.
If we’d had a dickier management, those guys might have lost their jobs.  I might have.  My family has a history of bad backs.
And so, when NPR pointed out that more people than ever were on disability, that made total sense to me.  In my white-collar phase of employment, a bad back was trivial; my work was all in my head and hands.  But as a blue-collar or lower worker, you’re pretty much judged by your body… and if that can’t function, you can’t get a job.  That bad back may be a permanent lockout from any job available to you, ever.
That’s a problem, because the growing class divide in America means that more people can only get work based on their physical output.  There was a time when Americans could get good, white-collar, office jobs without a college diploma; those days are no more.  There was a time when America’s manufacturing was robust enough to support hierarchies of management, so you might move up from the factory floor; again, that’s mostly dead.
What we as Americans don’t want to face is that our concept that “Anyone can make it in America!” is mostly a lie at this point.  We have all of the social mobility of France or Britain.  And the truth is, if you’re stuck in the lower tier of jobs, your ability to provide for your family is dependent on health.  That flags, and you can’t bus tables for eight hours, mise well pack it in.
So to me, what Tiger Beatdown proclaimed was an article where NPR gave into the welfare-beating hatred of America, I saw as acknowledging a critical reality: we can’t make people work when we, as a society, have quietly engineered it so that the only jobs they can get are physical labor.  Tiger Beatdown makes the grievous error of thinking that stating the fact of “Disability payments on the rise” is the same as “…and that’s a sign that we’re pandering to lazy assholes!”
No.  What I read was an article where judges were desperately trying to be merciful to people in dire circumstances, tacitly acknowledging that there were two levels of existence in America and trying like hell to find the money for these bastards somewhere.  I saw a hellish process that took forever to get onto, the kind of thing you could only get onto if you were both desperate and persistent.  I saw NPR outlining a fiend’s bargain where you agreed to give up the rest of your working potential for a poverty-level $13,000 a year, forever, never getting a raise unless the government unlikely gave you one, forever condemned to living in poverty… and having that be the only sane option because you had some part of your body give out prematurely.
The problem I have with this “liberal attack” is that Tiger Beatdown let it be a liberal attack. I didn’t see slackers, or scroungers, in that article, and I think you’d have to hunt to find them.  What I saw were people getting fucked over by a country that’s slowly grown callous to these folks, and a hard reality that despite years of conservative poor-bashing, there’s a lot of folks who would like to work who utterly cannot, because the system has failed them, and no amount of so-called “fiscal responsibility” can avoid the truth that we have to help them or things are going to get a lot worse.
What I saw was the most stinging indictment of conservative thought I’d seen in a while… And if conservatives saw that evidence as “scroungers,” then I think it’s high time to raise that banner high and say, “No, these people aren’t suckling on your teat, they’re relegated to terror, poverty, and disease because you’ve robbed them of low-cost health care, jobs with benefits, and education.  Now you’re paying the bill, and that payment, as it turns out, cannot be avoided.  So how do we actually fix America and stop demonizing these folks?”
Which is why I’m disappointed. Some people read a pretty goddamned sympathetic article and called them “slackers,” presumably because they had their heads up their asses.  And rather than refuting those points and saying, “No, actually, this is how bad it is for poor folks that these limited options look good to them,” some liberals chose to yell at…. NPR.
I’m in the top 20% of America.  I’ve got a lawyer for my wife and a highly technical job.  And after I post this, I’ll go back to my job, laying on my couch for the next eight hours and refactoring some programs that need reworking.  And I’ll think about how it might be if my wife worked at Denny’s, and my job was the stock room at Target, and shit, how the hell are we going to pay the bills when I’m falling asleep after eight hours of just sitting down?
I wouldn’t be a slacker, then.  I’d be an ailing man in a dire situation.  And by God, I hope someone would devise some better way of helping me than what we have now.


  1. Anna
    Apr 7, 2013

    Thank you for having a more positive outlook on the disabled than most. Whenever casual acquaintances find out that I’m on disability, I normally get looks that are full of negativity.
    Why is that? I’m a 28 year old with bipolar. My disability is mental (and thus invisible), but it makes it no less crippling. Especially when I had to go 3 years without mental health visits (and thus without life-changing medicines) thanks to a lack of health coverage. It was impossible for me to hold a job for more than 3 months before I simply couldn’t take one aspect or another (honestly, I tried, and turned my job history into a walking circus). Even now, I’m only in the process of recovery, so I’m still on disability while I try to get evened out and then work on finding a job. And yes, I have the misfortune of being stuck in blue collar at the moment, which makes it extra difficult (I’m fighting a war in my mind; having customers around can make it doubly stressful). I hope to change that, someday, as well, but as you pointed out, our country has made that more difficult than in the past.
    So, again, thank you for another great post in which you enlighten the masses in your unique method.

  2. BenjaminJB
    Apr 7, 2013

    And rather than refuting those points and saying, “No, actually, this is how bad it is for poor folks that these limited options look good to them,” some liberals chose to yell at…. NPR.
    I felt largely as you do about the thrust of this reporting (which I’ve heard on Planet Money and This American Life): it’s not “what slackers,” it’s “these are people who are being left behind, terminally.”
    But I understand–even if I don’t excuse–the liberal kneejerk response. It’s the political equivalent of the Jewish mother telling her kids not to fight on the lawn in front of the goyische neighbors. That is, it’s very easy for a liberal to read that article and think “well, now the conservatives are going to attack us about this.”
    For instance, Michael Walsh at the NY Post has a whole column which boils down to (pace Roy Edroso) “Fraud exists, so helping people is stupid.” Walsh throws in this very large problem (blooming disability rolls, fraud) with the story of a guy who pretends to be shoeless so that people give him shoes. Of course, that’s not really an argument; and Walsh never really says what he thinks about social service programs at all. But the trend of the column is “the nation is being suckered by moochers and con-artists.”
    So, when you and I read that NPR report, we may say, “we need to reform the system.” But when some conservatives read it, it’s more ammunition for them to attack the very system itself, often under the guise of “reform.” So I understand liberal fatigue over that fight and not wanting to give the other side talking points.
    (Except for the Walsh article, everything in this post is speculation. I don’t speak for the liberals, like some sort of Lorax.)

  3. Lillith
    Apr 8, 2013

    After my medical leave stretched to eight months, I recognized how stressful it is when we need time off, even when the employer is trying to be supportive. Thank you for offering a voice of reason.

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