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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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Giving Tuesday is November 29!


Looking for ways to take ACTION?
On Tuesday, November 29, 2016, come together with other people, charities, families, businesses, community centers, and students around the world for one common purpose: to support organizations that DO GOOD.
The day has many names—internationally known as #GivingTuesday, we also have the stateside  'New York Gives' , and #ROCtheDay in Rochester.
Often lumped together with Black Friday during the holiday season, #GivingTuesday encourages people to invest in their community by donating to organizations that defend the values that they believe in. There's no rules for participation, just go to the website for the nonprofit(s) that you'd like to support and make a donation.
It's a chance for everyone to take part in supporting the values and ideals that you care about most. For us here at Empire Justice, it's laws and policies that make sense, community empowerment, and fairness for all in the justice system.
And that's what you get when you invest in Empire Justice - together with your help, we make the law work for all New Yorkers on a systemic level through policy advocacy, class actions, on-the-ground advocacy for individuals, and capacity building through training and support to other organizations around New York State.
So whatever way you choose to participate, #GivingTuesday, #ROCtheDay, or through New York Gives, choose fairness for all and help us make the law work for all New Yorkers.

Tags: civil rights | Giving Tuesday | Rochester | Albany | social justice | legal services | legal aid

Happy Anniversary, Social Security!

Happy Anniversary, Social Security! 

Social Security’s is turning 80! Since the retirement program was enacted in 1935, it has expanded in important ways. The disability component, introduced later, is a now critical piece of Social Security, and ensures that those who aren’t able to work have a small measure of protection. Now is the time to ensure that the Social Security programs remain strong for our future.

We join others in honoring this anniversary and calling for the program’s protection in the future.  Ask candidates where they stand on Social Security programs in the lead up to the 2016 election.

Empire Justice Center Partnering with New York Disability Vote Network to Bolster Political Capital of Individuals with Disabilities

Written by Nicholas M. Lind, 2014 Policy Intern

New York Disability Vote Network (NYDVN) Strengthens Individuals with Disabilities

Empire Justice Center is proud to announce our partnership with the New York Disability Vote Network (NYDVN), a project of the Center for Disability Rights.  NYDVN strives to build, solidify and unify a disability voting bloc in New York State.  The network – the first of its kind in the State – will serve as a vehicle to promote a nonpartisan disability-friendly agenda initially focusing on health care, housing, transportation and employment.

NYDVN is developing at a time when voting rights for individuals with disabilities have come under attack.  In Los Angeles, the Disability and Abuse Project recently submitted a Voting Rights Act complaint to the U.S. Justice Department when officials limited the voting rights of individuals with disabilities who enter into conservatorships, legal arrangements in which parents or guardians are appointed to make certain financial or medical decisions. [1]

Bruce Darling, CEO of the Center for Disability Rights, commented in a statement released by CDR that, “People with disabilities have to fight for their civil rights every day.  Now New York will have a coordinated effort to ensure that the same people are also fighting for their rights in the voting booth as well.”  Kenyatta Dacosta, a community member, was also quoted in the report, remarking, “This project is important because it will allow elected officials to easily see how many people are affected by issues concerning disabilities.” [2]

Organizing a Disability Voting Bloc

A national movement led by the American Association for People with Disabilities has arisen in response to wide gaps in voting patterns between individuals with disabilities and individuals without disabilities.  In addition to New York’s campaign, similar voting and political networks have been created in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Rhode Island, North Carolina and California. [3]

Click here for a list of easy ways to make a difference and get involved!

Researchers that have studied political and voting participation of individuals with disabilities found that from 1992-2002, voter turnout for people with disabilities was 14-21 percentage points lower than that of people without disabilities who had similar demographic characteristics. [4]

One factor leading to lower voter turnout may be persistent barriers to accessible polling places.  A review conducted by the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that in 2000, 84% of polling places had potential impediments to access, and by 2008 that number had only fell to 73%. [5]

Even when physical barriers to participation are overcome, social and psychological characteristics of disabilities sometimes hinder voter turnout by decreasing an individual’s social capital and identification with mainstream society. [6]  Reaching out to voters not only informs them of the issues at stake but also counters feelings of segregation.

Despite these barriers, it appears that the movement to improve turnout of voters with disabilities is having an impact.  In 2008, the participation gap fell to 7% and by 2010 it had slid to 3%. [7]  NYDVN will work to cement the progress made in voter accessibility, and will turn toward the next step of political organizing: solidifying the disability voting bloc.  Importantly, statistics show that voter turnout among people with disabilities is positively correlated with developing group consciousness with a political party or organization (such as NYDVN), commitment to specific policies and involvement with formal or informal networks of like-minded peers. [8]

Making Progress: Gaining a Unified Voice

Political organizing efforts similar to NYDVN have proven effective at gaining the attention of policymakers.  Former Congressmen Bob Dole (R-Kansas) and Tony Coelho (D-California) agree that “one of the biggest challenges [within the disability community] is uniting around common identity and common struggles.  When the community does unite, however, there is no stopping its strength and power.”

“It is estimated there are more than 65.7 million family caregivers, supporting relatives with disabilities and seniors at home,” Dole and Coelho write.  “Add to this the millions of direct-care workers, other professionals and friends who care about loved ones with disabilities.  You start to get the picture.  This is clearly an important constituency!” [9]

For more information, please contact Jessica Thurber, Voter Rights Coordinator at the Center for Disability Rights at jthurber@cdrnys.

End Notes:
 [1] Michael R. Blood. (2014, July 10). “Disabled people denied voting rights, group says.” Associated Press. Retrieved from
 [2] “New Website Geared at NY Voters with Disabilities” Press Release, The Center for Disability Rights (CDR). Retrieved from
 [3] Each source provides information on voter organizing within a specific state.  See “Ohio Disability Vote Coalition Seeks People to Join its Voting Bloc” (2012, March 15). Disability Rights Ohio. Retrieved from; “Protection and Advocacy for Voting Access for Americans with Disabilities”. (2014). Services: Disability Rights Network of Pennsylvania. Retrieved from ; “Wisconsin Disability Vote Coalition” (2012). Retrieved from; “Rhode Island Disability Vote Project”. (2011). Retrieved from; “Vote 2012! Your Right. Your Voice.: A Guide to voting for North Carolinians with Disabilities”. (2012). Disability Rights North Carolina. Retrieved from; and “All About the Disability Organizing Network”. (2014). DONetwork. Retrieved from
 [4] “Voting,” in Gary Albrecht, ed., Encyclopedia of Disability (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2005).  By Lisa Schur, Todd Shields, and Kay Schriner. And also see  “Enabling Democracy: Disability and Voter Turnout,” Political Research Quarterly, Vol. 55, No. 1, March 2002, pp. 167-190. By Lisa Schur, Todd Shields, Douglas Kruse, and Kay Schriner.
 [5] “Voters with Disabilities: Additional Monitoring of Polling Places Could Further Improve Accessibility” (September 2009). Report to Congressional Requesters, United States Government Accountability Office. GAO-09-941. Retrieved from
 [6] “Enabling Democracy: Disability and Voter Turnout,” Political Research Quarterly, Vol. 55, No. 1, March 2002, pp. 167-190. By Lisa Schur, Todd Shields, Douglas Kruse, and Kay Schriner.
 [7] See “Fact sheet:  Disability and Voter Turnout in the 2008 Elections,” by Lisa Schur and Douglas Kruse, July 2009. And “Fact sheet:  Disability and Voter Turnout in the 2010 Elections,” by Lisa Schur and Douglas Kruse, June 2011.
 [8] See “Voting,” in Gary Albrecht, ed., Encyclopedia of Disability (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2005).  By Lisa Schur, Todd Shields, and Kay Schriner. And also see “Enabling Democracy: Disability and Voter Turnout,” Political Research Quarterly, Vol. 55, No. 1, March 2002, pp. 167-190. By Lisa Schur, Todd Shields, Douglas Kruse, and Kay Schriner.
 [9] Bob Dole and Tony Coelho. (2012, September 16). “Disabled voters possess untapped political power”. Politico. Retrieved from

Tags: disability rights | Center for Disability Rights | Voting Rights Act

Happy DAP Thank You Day!

Monday, April 28th is “DAP Thank You Day.”  Since there is a possibility that some folks don’t celebrate this holiday, we thought an explanation might be helpful.  Let’s start with the basics.

What is DAP?

New York’s Disability Advocacy Program (DAP) is a nationally recognized program that generates significant savings for New York State and local governments while also providing disabled New Yorkers with a stable income stream.  Through the DAP program, local advocates provide low income disabled New Yorkers in every county with legal assistance when their federal Supplemental Security Income (SSI) or Social Security Disability (SSD) applications have been denied or benefits terminated.

When did this DAP thing start? Who does it help?

While DAP Thank You Day is a fairly recent addition to the holiday calendar, DAP has been around for a while.  DAP advocates have represented thousands of disabled New Yorkers since the program began over 30 years ago.  DAP clients are among New York’s most severely disabled adults and children—they are simply unable to navigate the complicated legal process without assistance.

If you are wondering if you know someone who has been helped by the program - yes, you probably do. While each case is unique and there is no “typical” client, an individual story can illustrate the importance of this program to the people it directly assists.

Meet Tom

Empire Justice Center’s DAP unit recently represented Tom (not his real name), a 28 year old man, who was suddenly unable to work full time.  As a child, Tom had several brain tumors requiring surgery.  As a result, he suffered a traumatic brain injury.  While the surgery saved his life, he was left with lingering effects such as learning disabilities, memory problems and seizures.  Tom’s parents were strong advocates for him during his school years.  He received special education services and eventually earned an Individualized Education Program (IEP) diploma.  Through diligent monitoring and medication management by his mother, Tom’s seizures were controlled well enough for him to obtain a job and work nearly full time at a restaurant where he was given special accommodations for his disability, including reduced production expectations and limited duties.
When both of Tom’s parents died unexpectedly, he was unable to adequately manage his medications on his own.  Tom’s seizures became more frequent, and his memory problems increased.  It became difficult for him to do his job; he repeatedly missed work or had to be taken off his shift, so his earnings were greatly reduced.  His utilities were shut off and he forgot to pay the tax bill on the house he inherited from his parents. Tom was in danger of becoming homeless.  Reluctantly, Tom applied for SSD benefits.  His application was denied, in great part because he continued to work as much as he was able.  Tom appealed the denial and sought help through the Disability Advocacy Program.

The DAP unit gathered medical evidence documenting Tom’s seizure disorder and contacted his employer for documentation about his increasing difficulties at work and the accommodations provided for him.  A detailed brief was submitted to the Administrative Law Judge outlining Tom’s claim.  After a lengthy hearing, the judge issued a fully favorable decision.  The decision was especially important in Tom’s case because receipt of disability benefits was a prerequisite for increased services. 

With the disability finding in hand, he applied for a supervised housing program for people with traumatic brain injuries that provides assistance with managing resident’s medications and with other daily activities including budgeting.  With the added support, Tom looks forward to getting back to work on a more regular basis.

I can see how DAP helps individuals, but how does it help the rest of us?

Despite the lack of holiday spirit displayed by that question, I’ll answer it.  Yes, there is something in it for you.

From a financial standpoint, DAP provides a great return on investment for New York State.  For every dollar invested in DAP, $3 are returned to the local municipality and state in the form of cost avoidance and interim assistance paid by the district.  Additionally, DAP clients receive millions of dollars in retroactive awards that are spent in communities around the state.  Simply put, DAP makes New York stronger.  In addition to the economic benefits just described, DAP moves individuals onto stable federal benefits, bringing much needed stability to their homes and families.
Why thank you? And will there be turkey on this Thank You Day?

In its recently approved budget, New York funded the DAP program at $7 million, the highest it has been funded since 2007.  On DAP Thank You Day we want to express our gratitude to all those who stepped up to the plate for our clients and for the state. This includes Governor Andrew Cuomo; leaders of the Senate Majority Coalition, Senator Dean Skelos and Senator Jeff Klein; Senate Social Services Committee Chair, Senator Tony Avella; Assembly Social Services Committee Chair, Assemblymember Michele Titus; Assemblymember Richard Gottfried; and Assemblymember David Weprin.  So, if you see any of these legislators, say “Thank you,” and tell them about DAP. 

Turkey?  Since this is a relatively new holiday, we have not yet worked out the traditional meal.  Feel free to send us your suggestions.

In the meantime, check out DAPWorks to learn more about how DAP works for New York State.

Tags: Disability Advocacy Program | DAP | disability | SSI | SSD

60 Minutes Gets it Wrong

CBS aired a 60 Minutes story on October 6, 2013, featuring Senator Tom Coburn (R - OK), who claims that the Social Security disability system is being “gamed,” and is in need of an overhaul.  The truth is that close to 12 million American workers and their families depend on the Social Security Disability programs for life-sustaining funds needed to help pay their basic living expenses.  60 Minutes has unfortunately joined recent media mis-portrayals of these essential disability programs.

In March 2013, we responded to a similar report on NPR’s This American Life60 Minutes is guilty of many of the same misrepresentations and omissions.  The piece implies that the Social Security Administration has opened the floodgates for unemployed workers who cannot – or don’t want to – find jobs.  This simply isn’t true.  The standard to receive disability benefits is very stringent.  In fact, less than 40% of adult applicants are approved for benefits.

The 60 Minutes report is also highly critical of some lawyers who represent disability claimants before SSA and may engage in unethical conduct.  We also condemn any incidents of fraud, but in our view those incidents are indeed isolated.  We support protecting the integrity of the system.  In fact, claimants need advocates to navigate the very complex regulatory and adjudicatory world of Social Security.  That is one of our key roles here at the Empire Justice Center – we help those in need navigate the complex legal and medical maze of pursuing federal disability benefits.  We know firsthand the gauntlet our clients are made to go through.  In a time when Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) approval rates are declining, our success rate is over 80% - underscoring how necessary our services are to our clients.

Read some of the critiques of the 60 Minutes piece:

Tags: SSA | Social Security | 60 Mintues | This American Life

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