Should an Inability to Speak English be Considered in Disability Determinations?

July 17, 2019

Of interest is a recent article by Kimberly Kindy, a writer for the Washington Post:

The Trump administration is expected to change a federal rule this summer that for decades has allowed thousands of older citizens with proven mental or physical disabilities to qualify for federal benefits if they are also unable to communicate in English.

In its proposed rule change, the Social Security Administration says the inability to read, write and speak in English is not the barrier it once was, because the “U.S. workforce has become more linguistically diverse and work opportunities have expanded for individuals who lack English proficiency.”

Members of Congress are squaring off over the proposal, with several Democrats saying the Trump administration is promoting an unnecessary and polarizing policy change that discriminates against older workers and is anti-immigrant. Some Republicans who favor the rule change say the current system is antiquated and does not take into account how multilingual U.S. citizens and residents have become.

The proposal reflects the Trump administration’s tougher policies toward immigrants. The president declared a national emergency in his quest to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border and has slashed refugee admissions to the United States to historic lows. Last week, it was revealed that the administration is canceling English classes and recreational programs for unaccompanied minors in federal migrant shelters.

IA report from the House Appropriations Committee last month called the proposal a “harmful and unjustified attempt to deny” disability insurance to “older workers with long-term or fatal medical impairments” who have “pervasive limitations.”

A coalition of more than 300 nonprofit disability, senior and women’s groups that oppose cuts to Social Security said that although the agency has discussed this proposal for a few years, they think it is moving forward now because of the immigration views of President Trump and his administration.

“There is a lot of anti-immigration bias in this administration,” said Nancy Altman, co-chair of the Strengthen Social Security coalition. “It’s bad for people who don’t speak English. You are talking about the most vulnerable people in America.”

Rep. Tom Reed (R-N.Y.), who supports the proposal, said groups such as Altman’s are creating the acrimony.

“They are saying if you support this you’re a bigot,” said Reed, who argues that the 43-year-old policy is outdated. “I think that is patently offensive and dangerous rhetoric to engage in.”

Rachel Greszler, a research fellow with the conservative Heritage Foundation, which supports the proposal, said the current provision underestimates immigrants’ ability to learn English. And, she said, it makes assumptions that would not apply if workers were not returning to the job market because they lacked other skills.

“If you said, ‘I can’t do that job because I don’t know how to use the computer. I can’t use a smartphone,’ you’d be expected to learn so you could continue working,” Greszler said.

SSA began its review of the language eligibility standard in 2015 after the agency’s inspector general’s office identified 244 cases in Puerto Rico in which the language criterion was used by people who can communicate only in Spanish. Each of them qualified for and received the benefit.

The inspector general’s report said “both Spanish and English are the official languages” of the U.S. territory. It also pointed out that rules on English fluency do not allow for exceptions “even though Puerto Rico residents may be able to find local work with their Spanish-speaking skills.”


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