Bad Reporting, Flawed Data Reinforces Negative Disability Stereotypes

disability stereotypes

It’s unfortunate, but true: Disability stereotypes are almost always inaccurate, and even worse, they’re unfair. Bad reporting helps keep these disability stereotypes alive, so we’re taking a moment to debunk at least one example today. We believe unjust assumptions about those receiving Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) or Supplemental Security Income (SSI) need to go. Not only are these disability stereotypes wrong, they make people who truly need monthly benefits scared to ask for help. That’s why we publish updated disability beneficiary reports here every month — to give you the most up-to-date, reliable information available.

Disability Stereotypes Rely On Anecdotal Reports — Not Evidence

The Washington Post’s “Disabled, or just desperate?” follows Desmond Spencer, a 39-year-old Alabama man who recently applied for disability benefits. The story states Spencer’s mother, girlfriend and stepfather all received monthly disability checks, but didn’t specify SSDI or SSI. Since Spencer couldn’t find a job, his mother encouraged him to apply for disability benefits as well.

Spencer says, “There’s a stigma about it. Disabled. Disability. Drawing a check. But if you’re putting food on the table, does it matter?” After a pause, Spencer added: “I could probably still work.”



Throughout the article, disability benefits get portrayed as some form of long-term unemployment — especially for those who live in rural communities. The Post also claims that around a third of residents in these rural communities receive some kind of disability assistance.

“Between 1996 and 2015, the number of working-age adults receiving disability climbed from 7.7 million to 13 million. The federal government this year will spend an estimated $192 billion on disability payments, more than the combined total for food stamps, welfare, housing subsidies and unemployment assistance,” the article states.

But disability advocates say articles like this one grossly overstate how many people actually receive monthly disability benefits. Further, experts criticized this article for focusing on one man’s “decision” to apply for disability benefits without identifying the program. A single, anecdotal account hardly represents the millions of Americans who cannot work due to their disability. Too often, media outlets use sensationalism and disability stereotypes reported as facts to sell their stories.

Experts Slam Article for Reinforcing Disability Stereotypes

Rebecca Vallas at the Center for American Progress slams the Post article, stating it missed the mark on several points. Vallas provides evidence showing that the U.S. has the most restrictive disability benefit system found among all OECD member countries. (There’s one exception to this rule, however: Korea.) Thanks to the Social Security Administration’s (SSA) strict eligibility criteria, it’s extremely hard to claim benefits simply “out of desperation.” Unfortunately, the Washington Post article suggests that this is exactly what Spencer and his family members chose to do.

Vallas denies this issue, saying “fewer than 4 in 10 applicants are approved” (for benefits), “even after all stages of appeal.” To qualify for SSI or SSDI, you must have:

  • A physical or mental impairment that prevents you from working, and
  • Your condition must last for at least 12 months, or expected to result in death.

Vallas adds: “1 in 5 male and 1 in 6 female SSDI beneficiaries die within 5 years of receiving benefits.” This fact goes directly against popular disability stereotypes that portray beneficiaries as “lifers.”

After Vallas realized the Post skewed their numbers, she found they over-counted how many children and working-age adults receiving SSDI. (The Washington Post noted they’ve since updated this incorrect data, but that’s only visible by scrolling to the article’s end.) Vallas noted they double-counted roughly 1.3 million people, and the article was later updated with a note about these errors. In addition, Vallas found missing data for nearly 100 of the “rural counties” the Post article claimed to have analyzed.

Editor’s Note On Inaccurate Data Fails to Address Disability Stereotypes

The Post editor’s note states, Correction: Due to an error in the Post’s data analysis, an earlier version of this story misstated the number of counties with the nation’s highest participation rates in federal disability programs. The correct calculated estimate is 102 counties, not 136.”

But Vallas’ CAP article says that even the correction noted in the Post’s update is still completely wrong. They found one county (out of 3,100+) where “as many as one-third of working-age adults are receiving monthly disability checks.” By cherry-picking exactly one example that echoes many people’s beliefs about disability stereotypes, the article misled readers.

Unfortunately, this poor reporting corrected long after initial publication serves only to reinforce harmful and false disability stereotypes. Millions of people read and shared the first version, which included many inaccurate disability stereotypes as fact. After the Post’s editor updated it with a note about the correction, how many people reread and re-shared it online? Since there’s no real way to notify previous readers, we’re guessing few, if any, noted the update.

Even with these corrections, the article’s still built on questionable data and chose to focus on several insulting disability stereotypes. Reporting inaccurate data like this doesn’t give a voice to those who so desperately need disability benefits to survive. Anyone who meets the SSA’s stringent requirements for SSDI or SSI rightfully gets the monthly benefits they need and deserve.

Schedule Your Free Meeting With An Experienced Disability Advocate

Experienced disability advocates in our network are always willing to meet with you in person and offer personalized claim advice. We understand how flawed reporting like this can make disabled people’s lives even harder than it has to be. But we also know that the SSA doesn’t simply hand out benefits to anyone who asks just because they’re unemployed. Every month, we publish up-to-date, reliable information on VA disability and SSD beneficiaries. When we do, we’re using data pulled directly from each agency’s publicly published reports — not speculation.

If you’d like to apply for Social Security disability benefits but worry about others passing judgment, let us help you. A disability advocate near you who handles applications like yours all the time would be happy to answer your questions. You can schedule a free, one-on-one meeting with one of our disability advocates right now by clicking the button below.

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