NPR Reporter Chana Joffe-Walt Gets Disability Wrong

Chana Joffe-Walt, NPR's Planet Money reporter, has been making the rounds of public radio shows with a confused message about disability and disability benefits. She launched her well-meaning but ultimately muddled tour on This American Life and All Things Considered, then was interviewed on the Brian Lehrer Show and other shows as well.

Ms. Joffe-Walt, who is neither an economist nor a specialist on disability, is making a claim that in an economics class would be red penciled with the corrective -- "be very cautious when trying to provide simplistic explanations for data you've brought together." Her claim is that the number of people on disability has gone up dramatically -- and the reasons for this are twofold -- one is that poor people deprived of welfare are using the disability benefits program as a financial assistance program. The second is that cash-strapped states are paying lawyers to shift people from state welfare rolls to federal disability benefit programs.

The logical error in her reporting comes from simply assuming that the rising number of people on disability is the result of the collusion between poor unemployed people and cash-strapped states. But the reality may be closer to the fact that the Baby Boomer generation, as it ages, becomes more and more subject to impairments that lead to disabilities. Since a third of people with disabilities are those with mental disorders, it is also no surprise that the dramatic rise in diagnoses of depression, OCD, and autism in the same period have had an impact on these statistics.

The statistical meme that has gone viral from Joffe-Walt's reportage, especially among right-wing media outlets and blogs, is that one quarter of the people in rural, impoverished Hale County are on disability benefits. While this may sound shocking, Joffe-Walt does not mention that the 2010 census shows that almost 20 percent of our population is disabled and that substantially more than one out of ten people are severely disabled. Is it then a surprise that in some cherry-picked, hard-hit counties one in four or five could be receiving disability benefits?

I believe that Ms. Joffe-Walt has an important message to convey that she garbled this time around. The message is that disablement is created by social and political conditions--lack of accommodation, poverty, inadequate safety-net programs, physical and policy barriers, and the like. It was a tenet of some disability experts that society disables people choosing certain traits like skin color, physical impairments, and even poverty to discriminate against. Impairments are physical and mental, but disablement is social and political.

If Joffe-Walt had been clearer that her message was a social and political critique, her reportage would not be ricocheting around right-wing cyberspace with the message that a lot of people with disabilities are fakers who are scamming the government, that people with disabilities are too lazy to work, and that it is really easy to get on the disability benefit rolls (actually two thirds of applicants are rejected right off the bat).

The reality is that people with disabilities can and do work, but that some disabilities make it impossible to work. The majority of people with disabilities are poor, unemployed and unemployable. After the American with Disabilities Act they have civil rights and protections that are significant and hard-won. To characterize these Americans as cheaters is not a worthy goal, and reportage that inadvertently creates this impression -- well meaning as the reporter may have been -- does no one much good.