Applying for SSI – Part 6: the appeal hearing
If you had to pick the top 10 careers I am NOT suited for, “attorney” would be on the list (along with “nightclub bouncer” and “large insect handler”). I am introverted, avoid arguments whenever possible, and have “glibness deficits”. Yet on the day of Nathan’s hearing, my task was to fill the role an attorney would normally take. Why? As described in Part 5, the attorneys I had contacted did not think the case was winnable, and so they had not taken it. But in order to get (a) financial help, and (b) official recognition that Nathan had a disability and should qualify for appropriate assistance programs, I’d go where lawyers, in their well-polished shoes, feared to tread.
We arrived at the Social Security building early, and promptly went in the wrong door. Nathan and I spent a few minutes sitting in the waiting room for people with routine Social Security questions before I figured out there must be another place to go for ODAR. Not to be confused with alien space creatures who might bear the same name, ODAR, you’ll recall from Part 5, is the Office of Disability Adjudication and Review. It functions separately from the regular Social Security offices.
We found the appropriate door and went up the stairs and through security screening (similar to entering a courthouse) to enter the correct waiting room. I checked in with a clerk who gave me a CD with the contents of SSA’s file regarding Nathan’s claim. This is standard procedure. If I’d had a laptop and more time, I could have reviewed their documentation before the hearing.
A little after the appointed time, we were shown into the hearing room. Besides “Judge R”, who wore a robe and sat behind a desk on a platform, there was a medical expert (Dr. M) who sat facing us on our left and a vocational expert (Mr. S) to our right. Seats were assigned so that Nathan sat to the left of me as we faced the judge. We had microphones in front of us, since the proceedings were being recorded.
A court reporter swore us in. Judge R commented on how unusual it was for the claimant’s mother to be serving as the claimant’s representative. He gave a few instructions before the proceedings started. For one thing, I was not to offer testimony from the perspective of being Nathan’s mother, but only could speak in the role as his representative.
Judge R started by asking Nathan a few questions about his philosophy and his goals in life. Nathan was mildly grumpy about having been dragged to this boring thing he didn’t care about. Sometimes when he has that attitude he’ll give short answers, or won’t talk at all. I was glad that on this day, he answered the judge’s questions frankly. Judge R seemed genuinely interested, at one point leaning his chin on his hand and telling Nathan that he should write a book about his world view: “I think a lot of people would want to read what you have to say.”
The judge then let Dr. M ask questions. Because Nathan was seated closer to Dr. M than I was, Nathan couldn’t see my reactions as we looked left toward the medical expert.
Dr. M started off by saying, in a loud voice, something like this: “I would like to know, WHAT kind of a game do you think you’re playing? Do you expect anyone to believe that an intelligent, able-bodied young man like yourself is not capable of holding a JOB?”
My head went back, my mouth opened, my cheeks flushed. It was over. Dr. M was voicing all the skepticism I had feared would be the official position. I thought, this is why the attorneys had stayed away. They’d known.
“I’ll bet you don’t even want to receive benefits,” Dr. M went on.
Startled, Nathan said, “No, not really.”
“Then what’s stopping you, young man, from turning to the judge right now and saying we should end this proceeding – that it’s a waste of everyone’s time?”
“Really? I can do that?” Nathan asked.
Disaster. Mayday, Mayday! At this point I stopped looking at the ceiling and gave Dr. M a look – the one that means “Seriously?!?”
Nathan fidgeted as he decided whether to tell the judge to forget it, knowing I’d be plenty irritated (to put it mildly!) if he did.
Dr. M met my gaze. He raised his eyebrows and lowered his head a little, sending me the message, “Wait, and watch.” I took a deep breath and fiddled with the documents I had thought could prove our case. But if Nathan says he doesn’t want the benefits, what did it matter that he met the criteria for being disabled? The government wouldn’t force him to take the money, right?
Nathan started to speak but Dr. M talked over him, drowning out whatever Nathan might have been trying to say to the judge. Dr. M grilled Nathan a little more on his philosophy, asking if he’d ever heard of Jean-Paul Sartre (Nietzsche is a closer match to Nathan’s views, but whatever). After Dr. M talked a few more minutes, Judge R said something like, “Are you ready to give your findings?”
Dr. M said yes, and then started talking very fast, almost like the disclaimers you hear at the end of car commercials. He rattled on about “under Part A” and “Listing 12-point-[something].” Trying to keep up with what he was saying, I rustled through the pages I’d printed out from the Internet about SSA’s criteria. It wasn’t helping.
At one point Mr. S, who hadn’t spoken the whole time, leaned toward me. He whispered five words: “That means you got it.”
I looked up at Mr. S in disbelief. He smiled kindly. Judge R was smiling a little too. If this had been a movie, that’s when the music would have swelled.
Apparently, somewhere in Dr. M’s onrush of words had been the conclusion that he’d found Nathan to be disabled, and once he’d said it, there was no need for further discussion.
Dr. M came to the end of his pronouncement. Now it was the judge’s turn to talk quickly. I remember hearing the phrase “up for review in 18 months”, and the recommendation that we pursue “aggressive psychotherapy” for Nathan.
Then the men stood up and wished us well as I thanked them all. Nothing in my life has ever equaled the compassion I felt coming from those three gentlemen as we said good-bye.
Numbly, I exited the room with Nathan. We got it?! What a rollercoaster! And I hadn’t even needed to be lawyer-like after all! We got it…
Had the decision been made before we entered the room? Had Dr. M just been putting on a show, with all of his challenging statements? But why?
Nathan and I went down the stairwell. “So Mom, I guess we didn’t get it, huh?” he said in the tone of, see, I knew this was a dumb idea.
He hadn’t grasped what had happened. As casually as possible for a person ready to crumple with relief and gratitude, I told him, “You know, actually, we did.”