> Posted by Joshua Goldstein aka Mr. Provocative

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Last week some Democrats blasted conservative U.S. Senator Rand Paul for saying that many people who receive Social Security disability benefits are gaming the system. “What I tell people is, if you look like me and you hop out of your truck, you shouldn’t be getting a disability check. Over half of the people on disability are either anxious or their back hurts — join the club,” he said, drawing a few laughs from the audience. “Who doesn’t get a little anxious for work every day and their back hurts? Everybody over 40 has back pain.”

Hyperbolic and a little mean. Okay, a lot mean. And Rand Paul’s opposition to the Senate’s ratification of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities is an outrage, but we should not overlook that on this issue of fraud and waste in the Social Security disability system, there is a lot of truth to what he says – and the system is in need of reform.

In my view he is making a very legitimate point about an important government benefits system that some experts believe is veering dangerously close to bankruptcy. Less than one percent of those who collect disability benefits ever go back to work. This strains credibility and puts the program’s long-term solvency at risk. One telling example: as unemployment benefits run out during a serious economic downturn, it is not uncommon to see a spike in disability claims. Put simply, people who could work but don’t have work escape to the shelter of another government program to pay their bills. This is wrong. And it is a problem for all of us, not least for persons with serious disabilities who really can’t work and who even Paul agrees, a just society is duty bound to support.

The U.S. experience (and as I understand it the Canadian experience as well) should serve as a warning to lower-income countries that are in the early stages of designing social welfare systems to cover citizens with disabilities. It is imperative for them to ensure that in their systems, going back to work is not inadvertently disincentivized.

And it simply defies plausibility that so few people are able to go back to work. The kind and reasonable explanation for this is that many people with disabilities want to seek work at times when their condition has moderated, but fear that earned income or savings will be held against them if they fall back into a more compromised state and seek to collect benefits again. These fears need to be allayed.

At the same time, this understandable rationale explains away only some of the long-term collectors of disability benefits. Another explanation points to less attractive aspects of human character that affect the disabled and the abled alike. Let me explain.

In my work as a disability rights advocate, I try to avoid the unfortunate tendency to idealize (or overstate the virtue and character of) the persons I lobby for – a dangerous occupational hazard for those with a righteous cause. Moving away from a charity, pity based model to a human rights model means to recognize the full spectrum of humanity of the person with disability: the capacity for industry and goodness as well as the capacity for sloth and evil. It cannot be emphasized enough that membership in a vulnerable minority (whether gay, woman, a person with a disability, etc.) whose group has suffered from ongoing discrimination, does not automatically endow a person with virtue or offer a special dispensation for a lack of achievement. Clearly some opportunists take cover and comfort in an aggrieved group identity to avoid owning up to their own personal failings. And some of the best-intentioned advocates go along with this canard.

That is why at the Center for Financial Inclusion we argue for equal opportunity in receiving financial services, not special preference. Just because one happens to be a member of a vulnerable minority doesn’t mean that person has an inherent “right” to receive a loan or another financial product.

Indeed, we make it clear to disability organizations we collaborate with that the person who has a disability has to meet the common criteria and standards that all clients are held to and is not granted or denied a loan as a “representative” of a minority but as an individual who happens to be creditworthy. Period.

In my view, many activists do their best to blur the distinction between the individual and the “class” or “special interest group” that a person may belong to. This does a grave disservice to those members of said group who simply want their equality and human rights to be honored.

Sometimes the obvious needs repetition: there are people in the U.S., Ghana, Paraguay, etc. who happen to have a disability (or who are a woman, or gay, etc.) who are also liars and lazy, and they should be held accountable as citizens regardless of their identification with a group that may have suffered historic discrimination.

Have you read?

A How-To Guide to Realizing Disability Inclusion at MFIs is Now Available

Two Possible Futures for Persons With Disabilities

Attitudes toward Persons With Disabilities in Indian Microfinance Institutions