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Can't Speak English? File for Disability

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Residents of Puerto Rico are collecting Social Security Disability benefits because they don't speak English. Under the same policy, residents of the American Southwest will soon be receiving benefits because they don't speak Spanish.

People ride atop a vehicle waving a Puerto Rican flag during elections in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2012. (Photo: AP)

Picture a society where 95 percent of the inhabitants speak Spanish. An out-of-work nurse who suffers from depression and back disorders files a disability claim. The disability adjudicator must determine eligibility, including whether the claimant is able to adjust to other work, a desk job perhaps. The adjudicator finds that the claimant could in fact adjust to other work but still awards disability benefits. Why?

She doesn’t speak English.

The Social Security Administration applies its disability guidelines on a national basis and makes no exception for residents of Puerto Rico, an American territory since 1898 that may one day become our 51st state. In the meantime, residents of the island are American citizens and are eligible for Social Security Disability payments under the same five-step grid that covers every other American citizen.

People ride atop a vehicle waving a Puerto Rican flag during elections in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2012. (Photo: AP) (Photo: AP)

In the last few years, hundreds of disability claims, like the one above, claims that would never qualify as disabled in the rest of the U.S., have been awarded to Puerto Ricans. Claimants who could have secured other Spanish speaking jobs but who could not read, understand, or write instructions or inventory lists in English received checks from the American government. In a Spanish speaking country. Sweet.

And good news for Anglos in Texas, California, and New Mexico where Hispanics outnumber whites. English may still be our nation’s official language, but the SSA looks only at employability when evaluating disability claims. The five-step grid requires it to assess the difficulty someone may have doing a job if they do not speak and understand the language required for the job.

In our service economy that increasingly requires Spanish language skills in virtually all industries, especially retail, banking, and customer service, English-only citizens look to be in good shape. They may soon be eligible for Social Security Disability benefits because they do not speak Spanish. In a country where English is the official language. Even sweeter.

The Office of the Inspector General wants to rain on this Social Security Disability parade. In a recent audit report, the OIG suggested the SSA “consider modifying the English-language grid rules for the national program, taking into consideration the unique circumstances such as those found in Puerto Rico. This would help ensure only disabled individuals collect SSA disability benefits.”

Perish the thought.

OIG recommendations are legally binding but have no fear; they can be effectively negated by slow implementation. Recommendations made to Medicare by the OIG in 2011 could have saved taxpayers $2 billion in overpaid home health claims alone had they been implemented. Medicaid burned another $4 billion by ignoring OIG’s recommendation for better states’ guidance on federal upper payment limits.

Why would the SSA be any more responsive?

We the people are reassured in a Washington Post article that the SSA “agreed with the proposals and said it is making preparations for a potential rule change, including by gathering research and taking input from federal experts and the public.” Snore. Does that sound like a laborious, extended process or what?

The SSA is not noted for ninja-like operations let alone efficiency. OIG’s audit report notes that at the time of their review, “management reports on the grid rules used in five-step decisions were not available, and the data itself needed to be validated before such reports could be prepared.” In other words, “The dog ate my homework.”

The upshot? We’re wasting money, we know we’re wasting money, a bureaucratic system is awarding disability payments that should not be awarded, and the bureaucratic system is “gathering research and taking input” before it plugs the hole.

That’s why it’s good news for English-only citizens with depression and back disorder problems in the Southwest. It may be half a decade or more before the SSA gets around to tightening its guidelines. In the meantime, think of all the English-only Americans who will be awarded disability benefits for not speaking Spanish.

Donna Carol Voss is an author, blogger, speaker, and mom. A Berkeley grad, a former pagan, a Mormon on purpose, and an original thinker on 21st century living, her memoir "One of Everything" will be released May 2015. Contact: donna@donnacarolvoss.com.

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