A scant three months after introducing a rule to make Social Security disability benefit reviews more onerous, the Trump administration is at it again.  On February 24, the Social Security Administration finalized another new rule that will make it harder for disabled workers to qualify for benefits. When the rule goes into effect at the end of April, the inability to speak English will no longer be a criterion for receiving benefits.

Up until now, the inability to speak English was one of various medical-vocational “grid factors” used to evaluate a claimant’s eligibility for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI).  The rationale was:  claimants who can’t speak English may have a harder time finding work that accommodates their disabilities, and therefore need SSDI benefits to survive.  Disabled non-English speakers were not automatically awarded benefits based on their language abilities alone; it was simply a factor in evaluating claims.

“Claimants who are unable to communicate in English have fewer vocational opportunities than claimants with the same level of education who can communicate in English. Understanding and carrying out even simple instructions is harder or impossible when the instructions are conveyed in a language one does not speak.” – Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities, 4/2/19

With the stroke of a pen, the Trump administration has erased that criterion, claiming it will save SSDI millions of dollars – with a potentially steep human cost. The rule could deprive up to 10,000 workers of disability benefits every year, estimates Rep. John Larson (D-CT), chair of the House Ways & Means subcommittee on Social Security.

“For years, Social Security’s rules recognized that for an older worker applying for disability benefits with severe health conditions, and with no or little transferable job skills, the inability to communicate in English poses an additional barrier to work.” – Rep. John Larson

The National Committee has joined the Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities (CCD) in condemning the new rule.  As CCD wrote in a letter to the Social Security Administration:

“There is no justification for this proposed rule… SSA’s plan to implement these changes is flawed, will harm people with disabilities, and will lead to inefficiency in disability claims adjudication.” – Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities

Last fall, the Trump administration sought to make it harder for disabled workers to keep their SSDI benefits by adding a new layer of periodic disability reviews.  As we pointed out in this space, disabled workers – many of whom live alone and do not have advocates to help them – will be required to collect medical records and other documentation every two years to prove that they are still disabled.  This imposes a needless burden on some of society’s most vulnerable citizens.

The pattern is clear:  the Trump administration is on a mission to discourage and punish disability claimants by taking advantage of a common misperception that disabled workers are somehow gaming the system.  In fact, only 40% of disabled workers are approved for SSDI benefits.  These beneficiaries have disabilities so serious that one in five men and one in six women die within five years of being approved for benefits.  Here are just a few of the disabilities that can make a worker eligible for SSDI, none of them minor:

Cardiovascular disease

Respiratory diseases

Musculoskeletal disorders


Severe Depression

This is not a population that should have to hurdle extra barriers, erected by an administration that pushed for trillions of dollars in tax cuts for the wealthy and big corporations — but shows no compassion for people it deems to be members of the ‘undeserving poor.’

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