Health Justice in a Crisis: Ted and SSDI

As the COVID-19 outbreak continues to hit communities across the globe, Legal Council advocates have seen first-hand how a public health crisis can upend the lives of people with low incomes, people with disabilities, and our communities most in need.

Kate Miller, a senior legal advocate, serves people who are homeless and who have severe mental health conditions. Because of their mental health conditions often related to trauma, many of Kate’s clients are unable to hold a steady job. Monthly Social Security income allows them to lead healthier, more stable, and more independent lives.

In response to the coronavirus, the Social Security Administration (SSA) stopped in-person meetings. While this decision and other practices of social distancing greatly benefit the health of safety of many people, the change has made it more difficult for Kate’s clients to meet the requirements needed to get Social Security approval and payments.

Ted, a 45-year-old Chicagoan, is diagnosed with several mental illnesses. His mental health, along with a previous shoulder injury, makes working a steady job difficult. Ted worked with Kate at Legal Council for months trying to get approved for Social Security Disability benefits.

After months of working with Kate, Ted was finally approved. But here’s the catch: He was approved in March, at the same time Gov. Pritzker announced a shelter-in-place order and statewide closures.

Ted still needed to set up accounts to receive his payments and complete the last required documents. But he couldn’t meet with an SSA officer in-person, and he didn’t have minutes on his phone plan to call the office. Without this income, his health and safety was put further at-risk during a public health crisis.

Still working with Ted, Kate got creative: She texted Ted to confirm his information and answer questions about next steps, all while on the phone with an SSA representative.

While Ted was able to overcome these new barriers to the benefits he so desperately needed, there are still many Illinoisans falling through the cracks during these frightening and uncertain times.

Ted’s story, along with many of Kate’s clients, makes more evident the holes in our systems. While much of the world adapts in response to the COVID-19 outbreak, many people earning lower or no incomes struggle to keep up. When offices for benefits like Social Security or unemployment close, the only options for people whose livelihoods rely on these programs are to call or use online portals. But this means people like Ted without a phone or a computer struggle to get the services they need to stay healthy and safe.

Kate and other advocates at Legal Council are working around the clock to help Illinoisans like Ted overcome these new challenges. Adjusting day-to-day lives because of COVID-19 is a privilege that many of our clients don’t have. In this blog series, Legal Council advocates will share some of the barriers our clients have faced in getting the care they need to stay safe and healthy during this crisis.