Dubiously Disabled
Our compassion is being stolen, one parking space, one wheelchair, and one check at a time.


Lee Habeeb

It happens all the time. I head out to the nearest mall to work through my weekly honey-do list. After spending five minutes securing a parking spot, I walk to my destination. As I pass the handicapped parking spaces located a hop and a skip from the entrance — the spaces reserved for people in wheelchairs, or really old people with walkers, or other genuinely handicapped people — I notice a car pull into one. It’s one of those Seinfeld moments, and I turn into George Costanza. Almost.

The first thing I do is stop and take a look at the license plate. And then I wait. And it happens like clockwork. Perfectly healthy human beings with handicapped-parking decals spring out of their cars and happily stroll right by me.

Of course they’re happy — they get the best parking spaces, and suffer no consequences.

What happens next separates me from George Costanza: I don’t say anything. I don’t challenge the miscreant pretending to be handicapped who steals a space from people who are. And that’s part of the problem: People like me don’t confront people like them. Our government doesn’t put up much of a fight either, as you’ll learn shortly. Indeed, it actually gives them incentives for this behavior. And the grifters who pretend to be disabled get away with stealing our collective compassion one parking space at a time.

And one wheelchair at a time.

With regularity, the Wall Street Journal recently reported, airport employees witness people who falsely claim to be handicapped when they arrive at the airport. Having successfully cut to the front of the long security lines, these parasites jump out of their chairs the moment they’re through the screening process and race to their gates, bags in tow. Airport security sardonically calls these occurrences “airport miracles,” because the body scanners seem to possess mysterious healing powers.

How big is the problem? One airport investigated the matter and concluded that at least 15 percent of wheelchair requests are phonies designed to game the system. Some think that estimate is low.

We can thank the 1986 Air Carrier Access Act for requiring airlines to provide free wheelchair service to anyone who wants it. The legislation was carelessly written, so that there’s no documentation required to get the service.

Our compassion isn’t just being stolen one wheelchair and one parking space at a time. It’s being stolen one check at a time. Perhaps millions at a time, if we had the courage to challenge the explosion of disability checks being sent to Americans who are not handicapped.

How bad is it? Enrollment in the Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) program has hit an all-time high of 8.9 million, up from 455,000 in 1960 and 7.4 million when President Obama took office in January 2009. Since 2009, the number of people on disability has increased more than the number of people working.

All this has happened as medical advances have allowed more of us to stay on the job, and laws have been passed banning discrimination against the handicapped in workplaces.

But it turns out that once people get on the disability train, they rarely get off. In 2011, 650,000 people left the program, but 36 percent of those left because they had no choice — they died. Another 52 percent left because they moved to other programs. Only 6 percent returned to work, and only 3.6 percent went back to work because their medical condition had improved.

How did this happen? For starters, we allowed it. It has become socially acceptable in some parts of America to not work when you actually could, and instead to collect a check from the taxpayers. And in some parts of America, this is utterly commonplace. In Hale County, Ala., according to a recent NPR series, nearly one in four working-age adults is on disability. And on the day their checks arrive, NPR noted, “banks stay open late, Main Street fills up with cars, and anybody looking to unload an old TV or armchair has a yard sale.”

Things have got to be pretty bad if NPR is doing a series on the issue.

NPR’s Chana Joffe-Walt talked to a retired judge in Hale Country, Sonny Ryan, who described a conversation he had had with a man who appeared to be healthy, but who collected disability.

“Just out of curiosity, what is your disability?” the judge asked.

“I have high blood pressure,” the man said.

“So do I,” the judge said. “What else?”

“I have diabetes.”

“So do I.”

And that summarizes the problem.

In 1984, Congress changed the definition of the word disability. The old definition, it decided, was too narrow; it included pretty much only things that could kill you. Things that were easy to test for, like cancer and heart disease. The new law was more vague, with harder-to-diagnose problems like back pain and depression added to the list.

When Congress creates a vague law with big dollars attached, it doesn’t take long for a crafty lawyer to seize the opportunity. And seize it Charles Binder did. When he started working in the disability field in 1979, Binder represented fewer than 50 disability clients. Last year, his firm — Binder & Binder — represented more than 30,000 people.