Publication Date

March 2004


In its October 2003 report on the definition of disability used by the Social Security Administration’s (SSA’s) disability programs [i.e., Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) for people with disabilities], the Social Security Advisory Board raises the issue of whether this definition is at odds with the concept of disability embodied in the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and, more importantly, with the aspirations of people with disabilities to be full participants in mainstream social activities and lead fulfilling, productive lives. The Board declares that “the Nation must face up to the contradictions created by the existing definition of disability.”

I wholeheartedly agree. Further, I have concluded that we have to make fundamental, conceptual changes to both how we define eligibility for economic security benefits, and how we provide those benefits, if we are ever to fulfill the promise of the ADA.

To convince you of that proposition, I will begin by relating a number of facts that paint a very bleak picture – a picture of deterioration in the economic security of the population that the disability programs are intended to serve; a picture of programs that purport to provide economic security, but are themselves financially insecure and subject to cycles of expansion and cuts that undermine their purpose; a picture of programs that are facing their biggest expenditure crisis ever; and a picture of an eligibility determination process that is inefficient and inequitable -- one that rations benefits by imposing high application costs on applicants in an arbitrary fashion.

I will then argue that the fundamental reason for this bleak picture is the conceptual definition of eligibility that these programs use – one rooted in a disability paradigm that social scientists, people with disabilities, and, to a substantial extent, the public have rejected as being flawed, most emphatically through the passage of the ADA. Current law requires eligibility rules to be based on the premise that disability is medically determinable. That’s wrong because, as the ADA recognizes, a person’s environment matters. I will further argue that programs relying on this eligibility definition must inevitably: reward people if they do not try to help themselves, but not if they do; push the people they serve out of society’s mainstream, fostering a culture of isolation and dependency; relegate many to a lifetime of poverty; and undermine their promise of economic security because of the periodic “reforms” that are necessary to maintain taxpayer support.

I conclude by pointing out that to change the conceptual definition for program eligibility, we also must change our whole approach to providing for the economic security of people with disabilities. We need to replace our current “caretaker” approach with one that emphasizes helping people with disabilities help themselves. I will briefly describe features that such a program might require, and point out the most significant challenges we would face in making the transition.


This copy is a Draft.