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Just Thoughts is the blog of the Empire Justice Center, New York’s statewide, multi-issue, multi-strategy public interest law firm focused on changing the “systems” within which poor and low income families live. Here staff and guest authors will share stories, announcements and perspectives on timely issues related to our work.    

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This American Life and NPR Unfair and Inaccurate in Portrayal of Social Security Disability Recipients and Programs

National Public Radio (NPR) recently joined the chorus of media mis-portrayals of our country’s Social Security disability programs. In a one hour segment broadcast on This American Life and rebroadcast in shorter segments on All Things Considered, reporter Chana Joffe-Walt paints a misleading and inaccurate picture of these critical programs.

Ms. Joffe-Walt mistakenly claims that the standards for disability have changed dramatically since 1984, opening the floodgates for seemingly specious claims. This simply isn’t true. The standard remains very stringent. In fact, less than 40 percent of adult applicants are approved for benefits.

She also makes much of the so-called “Disability Industrial Complex,” as she calls the community of lawyers who represent disability claimants before the Social Security Administration. While many may find the lawyer advertising cited in the report distasteful, Ms. Joffe-Walt gives short shrift to the fact that claimants need advocates to navigate the very complex regulatory and adjudicatory world of Social Security.  In fact, that is one of our key roles here at Empire Justice Center – we help those in need navigate the complex legal and medical maze of applying for federal disability benefits. We know firsthand the gauntlet our clients are made to go through.  Our success rate of over 80% - in a time when Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) approval rates are declining - underscores how necessary our services are to our clients.

For a more detailed analysis of the misinformation in the NPR report, read the March 27, 2013 letter of the Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities to which Empire Justice is a signatory.

And if you want to let NPR know how you feel about the story, here are some suggested critiques developed by our national colleagues:

NPR can do better -- Take Action on Twitter, Facebook, & by phone!

Twitter: Please use the hashtag #unfittoair and tweet @NPRnews. Sample tweets:

@NPRnews “Unfit for Work” was #unfittoair. Full of errors & stereotypes abt people w/disabilities. Contact @ccd4pwd & cover the real story!

@NPRnews #SocialSecurity #SSI are lifelines 4 ppl w/severe disabilities. “Unfit for Work” was #unfittoair. Contact @ccd4pwd 4 the real story!

@NPRnews The #disability standard is strict & most apps are denied. 1 in 5 male #SSDI recips die w/in 5 yrs of getting benfts. “Unfit for Work” was #unfittoair.

@NPRnews 1 in 5 male #SSDI recipients die w/in 5yr of getting benfts. “Unfit for Work” was #unfittoair. Contact @ccd4pwd 4 the real story

@NPRnews #SSDI growth due to boomers in hi-disability yrs & women going 2 work in ‘70s/‘80s so more qualify.“Unfit for Work” was #unfittoair

@NPRnews #SSI is a lifeline 4 kids w/severe disabilities. Helps meet costs of care & encourages education. “Unfit for Work” was #unfittoair.

@CenterOnBudget has the facts on #disability after @nprnews got it wrong:

Facebook: post a comment on NPR’s wall. Sample posts:

“Unfit for Work” was unfit to air – full of errors & stereotypes about people with disabilities. Please contact and cover the real story! “Unfit to Work” missed half the story. No mention of how hard it is to qualify for disability benefits, or how severely impaired SSDI and SSI beneficiaries are. Please contact and cover the real story!

“Unfit to Work” was unfit to air – missing key facts. Demographics explain the growth in SSDI – boomers aging into their high-disability years and women entering the workforce in the ‘70s and ‘80s so they’re now insured for benefits. Please contact and cover the real story!

By Phone - Call your local NPR station!

To find your local station, visit:

Call the station and ask to leave a message for the Station Manager. Tell them: I am outraged by NPR’s poor coverage of the Social Security disability programs. NPR’s recent story, “Unfit for Work,” was slanted, misleading, and full of errors and stereotypes of people with disabilities. NPR can do better. I urge NPR to retract this story.”

If you speak with anyone at your local NPR station who wants to do a story, please have them contact or

Tags: disability | NPR | National Public Radio | This American Life | Social Security | All Things Considered | Chana Joffe-Walt | Social Security Administration | Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities