Disability Is Just a Word

Should you Go On Disability Benefits? 

There are both pros and cons to filing

As we age, many of us develop chronic health issues. Kidney failure, obesity, asthma, and arterial plaque build up are but a few of the problems. These health issues can crop up at any time, but they are more likely to surface in people over fifty. 

Many people are stunned to discover that they are disabled.

Liz Smith, a dialysis patient, was sitting in a meeting with her social worker, cracking jokes as usual. Then the social worker managed to stop her cold with one word. 


She described Liz as disabled. 

She could see the expression on Liz’s face, so she quickly added, “Disability is just a word.”

“I guess I should have seen this coming,” Liz said. “I had, after all, completed a Medicare application because it was the only way I could afford the $20,000 a month that dialysis costs.” 

Suddenly, she was forced to see herself as her social worker obviously saw her: a largely unemployable person. 

Many people face this same milestone as they assimilate the fact of a chronic illness. And many people have to decide whether to claim disability benefits.

Are you medically qualified to go on disability

The Social Security Administration (SSA), which disperses disability funds, has a pretty specific list of conditions that qualify you as “disabled.” You can peruse that list here: https://www.ssa.gov/disability/professionals/bluebook/AdultListings.htm. Asthmatics whose recurrent pneumonia lands them in the hospital on a regular basis, for instance, are eligible for disability as are people with chronic heart failure. 

You need to see if you are on that list, because, otherwise, it could be very difficult to establish that you are disabled to the satisfaction of the SSA.

The benefits to going on disability

If you have actually lost a job due to being disabled, then going on disability may be the most logical step. 

You might be in a treatment program, hoping to get better or even recover from your illness. In that case, disability benefits are a good way to bridge the gap in income while you dedicate yourself to getting well. 

Receiving disability benefits is also safer than job hunting for many people. Those with chronic health conditions are at higher risk from going into corporate offices, shaking hands, and meeting a bunch of new people. All of those activities are required for most job searches. And every interview event, except for phone interviews, is a chance to catch a virus.

The most important reason for filing for disability is if you are in immediate need. For instance, if you are about to be evicted from your home or if you don’t have money for groceries. In that case, disability is no longer really an option, but an entitlement that you must claim.

The arguments against going on disability benefits

That social worker’s use of the word “disabled” got Liz thinking about why she keeps working. 

“I’ve paid into social security for twenty years. With end-stage polycystic kidney disease and dialysis and liver disease secondary to PKD, I could probably make a successful application for full disability benefits of $1600 a month—which is about what I earn now,” she said.

“However, the truth as I know it in my most honest moments is: If I go on disability, I will spend the rest of my life watching television and gaining weight. I’m unlikely to get out and meet with new clients and make new friends. And I would slowly but inexorably come to hate myself,” she added. 

Liz is in a distinct minority, however. Seventy-five percent of dialysis patients in the United States have quit working. Some of them are plainly unable to work because of the fatigue, malnutrition, and recurrent infections that often accompany dialysis.

Clearly, going on disability is the right thing for many people with declining health. Is it right for you? If you are asking yourself that, consider the following questions:

Can you afford to be out of work for a year? To claim social security disability benefits, most people have to be out of work for a year or close to a year. Unfortunately, most private, short-term disability policies do not fill in this gap. Read the fine print, and you may have to be out of work for six months before making a claim on a private policy.  

What will you do with your time? Some people have a rich and rewarding set of hobbies and/or volunteer commitments that they can throw themselves into. That kind of activity keeps your sense of purpose going strong, and you may not need a job. At the same time, volunteering often requires attending committee meetings. Stay safe during these events by using the KVA Plan. You may want to recommend adoption of the KVA Plan to the non-profit organizations that you belong to.

Do you enjoy your work, and are you likely to miss it? Sure, there are days when it’s really aggravating, but work gives people something to get out of bed for in the morning. If you can still work and your work brings you more joy than pain, it’s probably a good idea to stay in the job force. 

Should you enroll in the “Ticket to Work” Program?

Liz’s social worker implied that she was not really making any money as a freelance graphic designer, then recommended Liz for the “Ticket to work” program. 

“Ticket to work” teaches basic job skills like resume writing and not to be late to your interview. The advice you get in these programs is both very basic and dated.  

If your resume is organized chronologically backwards with your most recent job at the top, you probably don’t need “Ticket to Work.” Liz, for instance, was already designing Linkedin profiles for her clients. There’s a good chance she already knew more about designing resumes and job searching than the person teaching the “Ticket to work” classes.

That said, if you have a very scanty work history and trouble writing a resume, you might benefit from the Ticket to Work program. 

In conclusion, there are many good reasons for people with chronic illness to claim their disability benefits, and many reasons to defer them. Consider your overall ability to keep working. Weigh that against the benefits of having a steady, if small, income that allows you to focus on your health. 

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