I’ve been meaning to write this post for years. When I started the process in 2005, I never dreamed that it would take me several years and multiple advocates just to secure the disability income that I had paid for through my taxes for my entire life. But it did, and when it was finally finished my then attorney said “you should write this all down so that other people can find out how this is done. I’ll even refer my clients to it” (I’m going to hold her to that one) but months turned into years, memory fades, depression is an evil beast, and procrastination is a self-fulfilling prophecy.
A few days ago a Facebook friend of mine posted a link to an article about Alecia Pennington. Now, I don’t know how much of her story is true, but her tale of being denied basic services due to lack of documentation reminded me of the troubles I went through getting my disability approved.
…and it all started with the lack of a US birth certificate. Well, actually it started with a friend of a friend who said he could act as my advocate for my Social Security claim, but several years later it ended with my getting my own passport.
I gave up working very grudgingly. I had been out of work for months before my last job, I worked some contracts but mostly just looked for work and wished I could get hired on somewhere. This went on for at least a year, and then I was offered two jobs simultaneously. One in Las Vegas that would have required me to move the whole family (I’m actually glad I didn’t take that one now) and one here in Austin working for an architect who was adamant he needed me. Knew what I was good at, was aware of what my health was like, needed me to save his business (this was how he phrased it to me) So I agreed to go work for him and turned down more money from the Las Vegas job.
I spent eight months working for him. Eight months of learning another CAD system (I think that’s 5 different CAD platforms) documenting the tools for other users in the firm, automating the process of modeling and document production as much as possible, and producing finish-out drawings for an office space in less than a day to demonstrate how the process could be completed quickly. That work, the kind of managerial design work I loved getting into, coupled with spending an excessive amount of time on paper getting to that point, through weekly active vertigo and the accompanying brain fog that slows mental processes most of the time. I spent months finishing the modeling and documentation on the building that was my primary responsibility, when it probably should have been finished in weeks. That fumble that I couldn’t explain outside of sickness ultimately left me jobless again with a family to feed and even fewer possibilities than I had a year previously.
I was literally hopeless at that point. I didn’t know what else I could do, and the bills kept coming in, with my health care incurring mounting costs of its own. I was spending a lot of time helping a wheelchair bound family friend then, and she suggested I contact a friend of hers to see if disability was a possibility. Given that the only remaining choice that appeared to me was life insurance coupled with a fatal accident, I figured I’d give the government a chance to own up to the promise that I could rely on it to be there when I was in need. So I called her friend, and we started the process.
First off, you have to have doctors on your side. You have to have a medical finding, in writing, that you have an illness which is covered as a disability. Luckily for me Meniere’s is one of those illnesses, and I had an ENT who was happy to backup my disability claim. We filled out and filed the documents and waited.
You do a lot of waiting when dealing with the government. Every time I mention filing or documents, you should understand that at least a month goes by before there is a response. That is if you are lucky. If you aren’t lucky they lose your paperwork and you have to refile and wait another month. It’s also worth noting that every single application for disability will be denied the first time. So if you don’t intend to appeal, don’t even start.
So we appealed and went to the scheduled meeting. The appeal was denied. This was the point when I realized that what I needed wasn’t just an advocate for my Social Security disability claim. I needed an attorney, because the advocate I had just shrugged and told me he tried.
After finding a reputable disability attorney (if you are thinking of pursuing disability, start by getting an attorney on your side and save yourself some time) we started another application through the process. This one had secondary documentation and signed affidavits from witnesses. This one was also denied the first time through. It was appealed. It was denied. It was appealed again. Ultimately my attorney called me one day and told me “the Meniere’s isn’t enough”. She paused for a bit. “Do you think you are depressed?”
Am I depressed? Well, I couldn’t very well admit that suicide was my only other alternative to government assistance (not without ruining the viability of that option) if I wanted to see my family fed, so I had to admit that I was struggling with just a little bit of depression. The entire tone of the conversation changed at that point. She said something like that will make it much easier for me and got back to work on my case.
I had almost given up the faint hope that disability would offer, when the approval for my claim finally came through. After two years of applications, denials and appeals, I was approved for disability payments. Just in time, because we had scraped out the last of our savings and were in the process of hocking valuable items in order to get the bills paid that month.
Just one problem. One tiny little hitch. Hardly worth the bother, really. See here, Ray Anthony Steele, you aren’t really a U.S. citizen.
I’ve paid taxes my entire working life, starting at age sixteen. I’ve never failed to file, I’ve never failed to pay. I even paid twice some years. Every time that the IRS audited me I wrote them another check, and they audited me every year that I was a card-carrying member of the Libertarian Party. I’ve paid my dues for 30 years, I think I’m a member of this club, and I would be except for one tiny little problem.
When getting a Social Security card, make sure that you bring with you all the documentation required to prove US citizenship; do not, under any circumstances, allow the person handling your application to harbor any illusions that you are not 100% a US citizen or allow them to submit the application without insuring that the box “US citizen” is checked. This is of paramount importance.
I was born overseas to parents who were in the military, stationed overseas. The hospital on the base where my parents were stationed didn’t have the ability to handle a premature birth, and I was early according to the doctor’s charts. So my mom went to where the premature birth care was, a hospital off-base that wasn’t considered part of US territory. All US military bases are considered part of the US, just as all embassies are considered part of the country they represent. I wasn’t born on the base, I was born in England, at the hospital my mom had been sent to by the military doctors. As a consequence of this, I have dual citizenship. I’m a limey (it explains my love of a cuppa) as well as a US citizen. I have one of those birth certificates that makes conservatives sleep poorly at night knowing I live next to them.
When I got my Social Security card back in the dark ages before computers, we went in with my British birth certificate. They told us no problem and marked me down as not a US citizen. Forty years later, it really is a problem after all. It’s a problem because that little notation on my Social Security record means I can’t claim benefits from the US government. So long, don’t let the door hit you on the ass on the way out. It matters not at all that taxes are deducted from our paychecks every time we earn a wage. It doesn’t matter that both our parents are American citizens. What matters is the checkbox next to US citizen on the Social Security form. Believe it or not it is true. Foreigners can not qualify for benefits.
According to the computers at the Social Security Administration, I wasn’t a citizen. We had stumbled across this fact earlier in the process and when it was noticed by the Social Security representative who filed my paperwork I was assured that if the claim was validated, the citizenship problem wouldn’t be an issue. I believe the phrase not a problem was repeated then, too. Except it was. Because my birth certificate is British. Very clearly British and not American. What was needed to clear this up was a record from the embassy in London stating that I was an American citizen born to US parents. This was a piece of paper I didn’t’ have.
At this point I started talking to immigration attorneys. Immigration law is a tangled jungle of lies and deception; and nobody, not even non-immigration attorneys have a clue how immigration decisions are rendered. I’m not even sure immigration attorneys know. I did find out that the specific document I needed was called a Council Record. If I could find that document it would prove that I was an American citizen born abroad, and I would qualify for disability.
A Council Record is an obscure reference for those who aren’t up on all this legal mumbo-jumbo. I’ll try my best to clear up the confusion here. The council (or counsel) in question in this instance is the United States ambassador to England and the United Kingdom. He is the councilor that has jurisdiction over births and deaths in the country that he is ambassador to, ergo Council Record. If you were born overseas you should have a document like the one above that says you were born to US citizens overseas. That is you US birth certificate, for all intents and purposes. Hang on to that document if you run across it. It is your lifeline to access government services.
I didn’t have a council record. I had never seen said document before. I had no idea what it looked like, so I started talking to relatives. I talked to my mom first. She remembered that I came into the country on her passport, that I was listed as a US citizen when I entered the country. Unfortunately she couldn’t find that old passport, it had been lost somewhere in the 20 or so family moves that had occurred since the 1960’s. So I went back to the immigration attorney.
He told me it was possible to request a copy of the passport, if I was listed on the passport. So I found that form, filled it out, got it notarized and sent it in. Then I waited. I waited a long time, longer than any of the other times I waited on a government response. They eventually did find and mail the passport record back to me, and I was able to use that record to apply for my own passport, and that passport made me a citizen.
The government said congratulations citizen. Here’s your first check. Hang on now. This check is for one month. I’ve been working on this process to complete for nearly 4 years now. Am I not owed disability since the date of my first application? Well, yes that would be true if I had been a citizen when I first applied. But you see this date on your passport, the one saying it was issued last month? That is when you became a citizen. Once again, have a nice day, don’t let the door… Nothing doing. Four years I’ve been at this. Four fucking years. I’m not stopping till I get my four years of blood back.
At this point I’m trying to exude patience and understanding, just to see if I can get through to the bureaucrat on the other side of the desk. I have this passport because my mother brought me back to the US on her passport back in the 1960’s. That passport makes me a citizen. Says so right on this document. Well, that might be true, but that just means your mother was a citizen and she brought you home with her. Was your father a citizen?
Was my father a citizen? Was my father a citizen? Well, he was in the US military at the time I was conceived, so for all of our sakes I hope he was. I mean, we don’t want any foreigners fighting in our ranks or having sex with our women, that would be unthinkable.
I don’t know my biological father. I sent the man an invitation to my high school graduation even though I had never met him in living memory. He never replied, never attempted to get in touch with me. For all I knew he didn’t even care if I was alive or not. I was raised by two different men instead of by my biological father and both of them tried to be dad and failed in various ways. I have never seen a page of correspondence from my biological father anywhere in any record that I kept or my mother kept. He’s a cipher to me. A complete unknown. I wouldn’t know where to even contact him at this point. I don’t know if he is still alive (not sure if I care either) I’m sure he had a Social Security number, I’m sure he was a citizen. I’m sure he has a military record. I have no idea how that information is dredged up without contacting his family, which had also been tried previously and ended in failure.
So I asked the Social Security administration if they knew how to find his number, how to track down his military record. I started putting out feelers, once again trying to get that information, looking for his family to contact. At that point I finally had a stroke of luck. The Social Security administration came up with the information all by themselves, attaching his file to mine and approving the back payments without my having to do the costly and time consuming legwork of tracking down my father and armwrestling him for his Social Security number.
There was a year or two of argument about paying my attorney and discovering that they had withheld two attorneys worth of money from my back payments so they should give me money rather than try to take money away from me, but at least I got them to admit that I really was a citizen after all. That (and the money) was satisfaction enough.
Then my dad died. Not the cipher, the man I never knew. The man who tried hardest to be dad, to care. The man I could rely on even though he wasn’t married to my mom anymore. He died after a decade of battle with cancer. He made up for his earlier failures, and I accepted his apologies and considered him my dad for a good number of years before the end, even though his genes are not mine. I loved him. I loved his family and their history. I was very sad to see him go.
While we were in Colorado preparing for the funeral, going through old records and photos, reminiscing about the past, his last wife (my second mom. I think I have 4 now. Maybe even 5. Well, mom is mom, but then there are other moms. Yes, it’s confusing) she was suddenly struck with a memory. When they were going through the attic at gramma’s house preparing it for sale, they stumbled across a box of stuff that had been shipped back to the US from England when mom moved back to the States with me. There was a document about me in the box, and she didn’t know if it was important but she thought I’d want to keep it. After rummaging around in a drawer for a few minutes, she produced the Council Record that would have saved me years of work had I only known who to talk to about it. I just thanked her and gave her a hug. What else are you going to do, at that point?
That’s it. That’s my disability story finally written. I should probably see if I can remember what the appeals courts were called, track down the document numbers for the documents I submitted, just for clarity’s sake. But right now I just want to step back and admire the fact that I’ve written this damn thing. It took me long enough. Longer than it took to get my disability approved? Just about.