I’ve been meaning to write this post for years. When I started the process in 2005, I never dreamed that it would take me several years and multiple advocates just to secure the disability income that I had paid for through my taxes for my entire life. But it did, and when it was finally finished my then attorney said “you should write this all down so that other people can find out how this is done. I’ll even refer my clients to it” (I’m going to hold her to that one) but months turned into years, memory fades, depression is an evil beast, and procrastination is a self-fulfilling prophecy.
A few days ago a Facebook friend of mine posted a link to an article about Alecia Pennington. Now, I don’t know how much of her story is true, but her tale of being denied basic services due to lack of documentation reminded me of the troubles I went through getting my disability approved.
…and it all started with the lack of a US birth certificate. Well, actually it started with a friend of a friend who said he could act as my advocate for my Social Security claim, but several years later it ended with my getting my own passport.
I gave up working very grudgingly. I had been out of work for months before my last official full time job. I worked some contracts in those months, but mostly I just looked for work and wished I could get hired on somewhere. This lack of full time employment went on for almost a year, maybe more than a year, and then I was offered two jobs simultaneously. There was a job available for me in Las Vegas that would have required me to move the whole family (I’m actually glad I didn’t take that one now) and the other job was here in Austin, working for an architect who was adamant he needed me. He said he knew what I was good at, was aware of what my health was like and needed me to save his business (his words) So I agreed to go work for him and turned down the job in Las Vegas that was offering more money.
I spent eight months working at my last full time job. Less time than I spent trying to find that job. Eight months of learning another CAD system (I think that’s 5 different CAD platforms) documenting the tools for other users in the firm, automating the process of modeling and document production as much as possible. The coup-de-gras for this whole endeavor was producing finish-out drawings for an office space in less than a day, just to demonstrate how the process could be completed quickly.
That work, the kind of managerial design work I loved getting into, coupled with spending an excessive amount of time on paper getting to that point, all while suffering with weekly active vertigo and the accompanying brain fog that slows mental processes (a side effect of the vertigo) I spent months finishing the modeling and documentation on the building that was my primary responsibility, when that project probably should have been finished in weeks. That fumble that I couldn’t explain outside of sickness ultimately left me jobless again with a family to feed and even fewer possibilities than I had a year previously.
Unemployed, February 19, 2005. I was literally hopeless at that point. The months of contract work that I had engaged in before that final full time job had taught me that I wasn’t as good at my job as I remembered being. The two or three part-time contracts I got after that last full time job simply underscored this fact. I was failing to do the work required because I could no longer picture the construction in my head as I had done previously, the mental trick that allowed me to do the job that I wanted to do was getting harder and harder to grasp.
I didn’t know what else I could do, and the bills kept coming in, my health care incurring mounting costs of its own on top of everything else. I was spending a lot of time helping a wheelchair bound family friend then, and she suggested I contact a friend of hers to see if disability was something I could get. Something to keep the roof over my family’s heads. Given that the only remaining choice that appeared to me was life insurance coupled with a fatal accident, I figured I’d give the government a chance to own up to the promise that I could rely on it to be there when I was in need. So I called her friend, and we started the process.
The first thing you need to know about applying for disability is that you have to have doctors on your side in order for the application to be successful. You have to have a medical finding in writing. A statement from a medical professional that you have an illness which is covered as a disability. Luckily for me Meniere’s is one of those illnesses, and I had an ENT who was happy to backup my disability claim. So we filled out the government application forms, got the statement from my doctor, and then we filed all the documents and waited.
You do a lot of waiting when dealing with the government. Every time I mention filing or documents, you should understand that at least a month goes by before there is a response. That is if you are lucky. If you aren’t lucky they lose your paperwork and you have to refile and wait another month (that happened more than once) It’s also worth noting that every single application for disability will be denied the first time. So if you don’t intend to appeal, don’t even start.
The first application was denied (of course) So we appealed. That appeal was denied. On second appeal, we had to go before the administrative law judge. So I got all dressed up and went to that hearing, prepared to throw up on the judge if I needed to. That appeal was also denied (I probably should have thrown up on him) This was the point when I realized that what I needed wasn’t just an advocate for my Social Security disability claim. I needed an attorney, because the advocate I had just shrugged and told me he tried. Trying was not enough, in my book. I was owed disability and my family had to have income, one way or the other.
If you are thinking of pursuing a disability claim, start by getting an attorney on your side and save yourself some time. That should probably be the first thing to know, but it was the second thing for me. My new found attorney and I started another application through the process. This second application had secondary documentation and signed affidavits from witnesses. This one was also denied the first time through, just like the last one.
We appealed. The appeal was denied. We appealed again. Then one day (months later) much like any other day in the life of the average chronic illness sufferer, desperate, feeling alone, feeling like the world just wants you to die quietly somewhere, my attorney called. She said “the Meniere’s isn’t enough by itself. We can’t get approved with just the Meniere’s.” She paused for a bit. “Do you think you are depressed?”
Am I depressed? Well, I couldn’t very well admit that suicide was my only other alternative to government assistance (not without ruining the viability of that option) the only other alternative to disability if I wanted to see my family fed. Feeling suicidal is a red flag for depression, so I admitted to her that I was struggling with just a little bit of depression. The entire tone of the conversation changed. She said something like that will make it much easier for me and got back to work on my case.
I had almost given up the faint hope that disability would offer when the approval for my claim finally came through. After two years of applications, denials and appeals, I was approved for disability payments. Just in time too, because we had scraped out the last of our savings and were in the process of hocking valuable items in order to get the bills paid that month.
The citizenship problem (2008)
There was just one problem, though. One tiny little hitch. Hardly worth the bother, really. See here, Ray Anthony Steele, you aren’t a U.S. citizen.
Excuse me? I’ve paid taxes my entire working life, starting at age sixteen. I’ve never failed to file, and I’ve never failed to pay. I even paid taxes twice in some years. Every time that the IRS audited me I wrote them another check, and they audited me every year that I was a card-carrying member of the Libertarian Party. I’ve paid my dues for 30 years. I think I’m a member of this club, this club called the United States, and I would be seen that way by the government except for one tiny little problem.
When getting a Social Security card, make sure that you bring with you all the documentation required to prove US citizenship; do not, under any circumstances, allow the person handling your application to harbor any illusions that you are not 100% a US citizen or allow them to submit the application without insuring that the box “US citizen” is checked. This is of paramount importance.
I was born overseas to parents who were in the military, stationed overseas. The hospital on the base where my parents were stationed didn’t have the ability to handle a premature birth, and I was early according to the doctor’s charts. So my mom went to where the premature birth care was, a hospital off-base that wasn’t considered part of US territory. All US military bases are considered part of the United States, just as all embassies are considered part of the country they represent. I wasn’t born on the base, I was born in England, at the hospital my mom had been sent to by the military doctors. As a consequence of this little snafu, I have dual citizenship. I’m a limey (it explains my love of a cuppa) as well as a US citizen. I have one of those birth certificates that makes conservatives sleep poorly at night knowing I live next to them.
When I got my Social Security card back in the dark ages before computers, we went in with my British birth certificate. They told us no problem and marked me down as not a US citizen. Forty years later, it really is a problem after all. It’s a problem because that little notation on my Social Security record means I can’t claim benefits from the US government. So the government’s response to this was to say “so long Mr. Steele, don’t let the door hit you on the ass on the way out.” It matters not at all that taxes are deducted from our paychecks every time we earn a wage. It doesn’t matter that both our parents are American citizens. What matters is the checkbox next to US citizen on the Social Security form. Believe it or not, this is the truth. If you aren’t a citizen, you can’t claim benefits because foreigners can not qualify for benefits even if they pay taxes here.
According to the computers at the Social Security Administration, I wasn’t a citizen. We had stumbled across this fact earlier in the process and when it was noticed by the Social Security representative who filed my paperwork I was assured that if the claim was validated, the citizenship problem wouldn’t be an issue. I believe the phrase not a problem was repeated then, too. Except it was. Because my birth certificate is British. Very clearly British and not American. What was needed to clear this up was a record from the embassy in London stating that I was an American citizen born to US parents. This was a piece of paper I didn’t have.
At this point I started talking to immigration attorneys. Immigration law is a tangled jungle of lies and deception; and nobody, not even non-immigration attorneys have a clue how immigration decisions are rendered. I’m not even sure immigration attorneys know. I did find out that the specific document I needed was called a Council Record. If I could find that document it would prove that I was an American citizen born abroad, and I would qualify for disability.
A Council Record is an obscure reference for those who aren’t up on all this legal mumbo-jumbo. I’ll try my best to clear up the confusion here. The council (or counsel) in question in this instance is the United States ambassador to England and the United Kingdom. He is the councilor that has jurisdiction over births and deaths in the country that he is ambassador to, ergo Council Record. If you were born overseas you should have a document like the one above that says you were born to US citizens overseas. That is your US birth certificate, for all intents and purposes. Hang on to that document if you run across it. It is your lifeline to access government services.
I didn’t have a council record. I had never seen said document before. I had no idea what it looked like, so I started talking to relatives. I talked to my mom first. She remembered that I came into the country on her passport, that I was listed as a US citizen when I entered the country. Unfortunately she couldn’t find that old passport, it had been lost somewhere in the 20 or so family moves that had occurred since the 1960’s. So I went back to the immigration attorney. He told me it was possible to request a copy of the passport, if I was listed on the passport.
So I found that form. I filled it out, got it notarized and sent it in. Then I waited. And waited. And waited. I waited a long time, longer than any of the other times I waited on a government response through this entire multi-year process. The State department eventually did find and mail the passport record back to me, a lucky break at last, and I was able to use that record to apply for my own passport. That passport made me a citizen. After forty years of productive life in the US listed as a non-citizen, I officially became a citizen just to get disability benefits. There is some humor in there somewhere, I’m sure.
…and The government said congratulations citizen. Here’s your first check.
I looked at the check and said “Hang on now. This check is for one month.” I’ve been working on this process for nearly 4 years now. Am I not owed disability since the date of my first application? “Well, yes” the government said. “That would be true if you had been a citizen when you first applied. But you see this date on your passport, the one saying it was issued last month? That is when you became a citizen.” Once again, Mr. Steele, have a nice day, don’t let the door hit you on the ass on your way out.
Nothing doing. I am not giving up now. Four years I’ve been at this. Four fucking years. I’m not stopping till I get my four years of blood back. At this point I’m trying to exude patience and understanding, just to see if I can get through to the bureaucrat on the other side of the desk. I have this passport because my mother brought me back to the US on her passport back in the 1960’s. That passport from the 1960’s makes me a citizen. A citizen for my whole fucking life. It says so right on this document.
…and the government replies, “Well, that might be true, but that just means your mother was a citizen and she brought you home with her. Was your father a citizen?”
Was my father a citizen? Was my father a citizen? Well, he was in the United States military at the time I was conceived, so for all of our sakes I hope he was. I mean, we don’t want any foreigners fighting in our ranks or having sex with our women, that would be unthinkable.
I don’t know my biological father. I sent the man an invitation to my high school graduation even though I had never met him in living memory. He never replied to the invitation, has never attempted to get in touch with me at any point during my life. For all I knew he didn’t even care if I was alive or not. I was raised by two different men instead of by my biological father and both of them tried to be dad and failed in various ways. I have never seen a page of correspondence from my biological father anywhere in any record that I kept or my mother kept. He’s a cipher to me. A complete unknown. I wouldn’t know where to even contact him at this point. I don’t know if he is still alive (not sure if I care either) I’m sure he had a Social Security number, I’m sure he was a citizen. I’m sure he has a military record. I have no idea how that information is dredged up without contacting his family, which had also been tried previously and ended in failure.
So I asked the Social Security administration if they knew how to find his number, how to track down his military record. I started putting out feelers, once again trying to get that information, looking for his family to contact. However, the Social Security administration came up with the information all by themselves. Proving once and for all (for me anyway) that they aren’t all demons placed here on Earth just to torment us average folk. They attached his file to mine and approved the back payments without my having to do the costly and time consuming legwork of tracking down my father and armwrestling him mano-a-mano for his Social Security number.
After that. After the years of fighting. After the many setbacks. After the successful conclusion of the application and subsequent reversal of the judgement that I was not a citizen. There was a year or two of argument about paying my attorney and discovering that they had withheld two attorneys worth of money from my back payments, and so they should give me money rather than try to take money away from me to pay my attorney. But, I was a citizen and I was getting the disability that I had dutifully paid for all my life. My children had a home. We had food on the table. I was satisfied.
Then my dad died. The man who tried hardest to be dad, to care. The man I could rely on even though he wasn’t married to my mom anymore. Jack Steele, the man whose name I carry with pride, died. A decade of battle with cancer was finally over. He made up for his earlier failures, and I accepted his apologies and considered him my dad for a good number of years before the end, even though his genes are not my genes. I loved him. I loved his family and their history. I was very sad to see him go.
While we were in Colorado preparing for the funeral, going through old records and photos, reminiscing about the past, his last wife (my second mom. I think I have 4 now. Maybe even 5. Well, mom is mom, but then there are other moms. Yes, it’s confusing) she was suddenly struck with a memory. When they were going through the attic at gramma’s house preparing it for sale, they stumbled across a box of stuff that had been shipped back to the US from England when mom moved back to the States with me. There was a document about me in the box, and she didn’t know if it was important but she thought I’d want to keep it. After rummaging around in a drawer for a few minutes, she produced the Council Record that would have saved me years of work had I only known who to talk to about it. I just thanked her and gave her a hug. What else are you going to do, at that point?
That’s it. That’s my disability story finally written. I should probably see if I can track down the document numbers for the documents I submitted, just for clarity’s sake. But right now I just want to step back and admire the fact that I’ve written this damn thing. It took me long enough. Longer than it took to get my disability approved? Just about.