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The awkward cashier: How federal disability policy mangles its mission (+video)

Published: Sunday, March 10 2013 10:00 p.m. MDT

Moreover, Autor argues that by driving disabled claimants off-line for the two to three years it takes to process a claim, they become permanently disconnected from the job market.

If they weren’t disabled before, they are after grinding through the process. "A well-designed public disability program should do more for people like Dal Schrader,” Autor said.

Stiff upper lip

Dal could do fine with part-time work said his wife, Sara, but at the moment they cannot afford the pay cut. “He’s good for the first six hours,” she said. “But for the last two, he really struggles.”

Twice, Sara said, Dal was sent home from work early, after customers said they thought “that cashier” was stoned. He was really just exhausted. “He’ll get confused because he’s tired, or he’s not fast enough for the customer,” Sara said.

The first couple of times that Dal had a seizure at work, Wal-Mart managers called an ambulance. This cost the family $1,200 out of pocket each time. Now she keeps a phone with her, serving as her own ambulance. She handles routine seizures at home. Her role, she says, is “to make sure he doesn’t swallow his tongue.”

Dal is extremely tough and very stoic. To a fault, Sara fears. Reluctant to tell people how bad he hurts, he often understates matters. "It's not so bad most the of the time," he tells me, "but it is tough when I get tired."

Dal likes to emphasize his capabalities. He describes being on a swim team in his youth, and how with great effort he was able to strengthen his weaker arm so he could swim straight. He and Sara met at a dance and have enjoyed ballroom dancing over the years, despite their physical challenges.

Dal's demeanor with his family is remarkably relaxed. His eyes have a perpetual twinkle. He exudes zen. For some, lifelong challenges like this might be an excuse for an edgy temper, but Dal seems to have been mellowed instead.

Sara juggles Dal and the children, aged 5 and 10, while managing her own substantial health challenges. Her spine has a disintegrated disc, and in her digestive tract she suffers from internal keloids, or expanding excess scar tissue. Last year, she was diagnosed with fibromyalgia.

Still, Sara is looking for a night shift job that she could manage while Dal is safely home and asleep. This will allow Dal to drop to part-time employment long enough to meet rigid SSDI work requirements.

It's a difficult balance. For now, the family cannot afford to forgo Dal's income while waiting out the lengthy process.

Collapsing stigma

The system that is pushing Dal Schrader out of the workforce is doing the same to millions of other Americans, many of whom could work full or part time with partial disability support.

If the Americans with Disabilities Act was supposed to get more disabled workers into the work force, it seems to have failed. In fact, the sharp spike in disability claims began when the ADA was passed, notes Jennifer Erkulwater, a professor of political science at the University of Richmond in Virginia.

“Everyone thought the ADA was going to open up work to people with disabilities and they would become taxpayers,” Erkulwater said. “In fact, it had the exact opposite effect.”

Erkulwater suspects that the ADA, combined with 1984 policy changes that opened up disability claims for mental and musculoskeletal disorders, drove up claims by destigmatizing disability and encouraging new types of disorders.

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