What Social Security Doesn’t Know Can Hurt You

October 21, 2013

Charles was frustrated. He applied for Social Security Disability about eight months earlier, but so far, all he was hearing was “no.” Social Security had just sent him a denial letter (for the second time) and he just couldn’t understand how anyone could tell him that he could still work.  “The medical evidence in file shows that your condition does cause some restrictions in your ability to function. However, you still have the ability to do light work. We realize that your condition prevents you from doing past job(s), but you are still able to do other types of work which are less demanding.”

Charles had been working as a construction laborer for most of his adult life, not always steady (construction rarely was), but he had been at it for over 30 years and it was all he knew. There were a few short lived jobs (factory and seasonal work with the post office over the holidays), but they were all physical jobs, too. His last job ended because he couldn’t keep up with the rest of the crew; they had been doing rehab work on an old apartment building and those ladders just seemed to get heavier every day. So when his boss told him he was going to need a smaller crew for the next phase of the project, Charles wasn’t surprised to learn he was on the short list to be laid off.

So, what other “less demanding work” could he do? He was 52 with diabetes, hypertension and a bad back. What other work were they thinking of? And how could he do it when he felt so crummy all of the time? He was doing his best to get better, but without insurance he didn’t seem to be making much progress. Social Security must not have been aware of all of his problems, but the letter also said, “You said that you became disabled on 10/02/12 because of diabetes, hypertension and a pinched nerve in the lower back.”

So what was missing? What wasn’t Social Security understanding about Charles’ disability?

Often, it comes down to good communication and good self-advocacy. What Charles did not know is that many of the most important details about his daily struggles were nowhere to be found in his medical records. Sure he went to the doctor every three to six months (at the county clinic), but he really didn’t like doctors or hospitals or even taking medication. And on top of everything else, Charles had always prided himself on not being a whiner or a complainer; on the job he was always one of the strongest guys, so when he would visit the clinic, he felt ashamed to complain to all of those young doctors (they seemed to change every six months). He just wanted his prescriptions and to get out of there ASAP.

What Charles didn’t realize is that unless he told someone that he had trouble sleeping because of the burning and numbness in his feet, how could anyone know? Unless he told doctors that he was up to use the washroom two or three times a night, how would anyone know? Unless he told someone that he had been feeling weaker and weaker over the past couple of years, how would anyone, including Social Security, know?

What Charles eventually learned is not to assume that anyone knows anything about what he is feeling unless he tells them about it. So instead of hurrying through the doctor visits, he started speaking up; he even started jotting down notes and questions before the doctor visits so he wouldn’t forget. He put his pride aside and began communicating.

Similarly, Charles came to terms with the fact that convincing Social Security he was disabled wasn’t just a matter of telling them the names of his doctors or filling out some forms. It was complicated, it was confusing and it was no time to “wing it.” Charles finally realized he needed representation.