Does SSA requiring wet signatures discriminate against the blind?

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People with disabilities often hire lawyers or other representatives to do the awful paperwork of filing for Social Security benefits. But because they use a rep, Social Security requires signed paperwork, a so called wet signatures, meaning they can’t file online. Now several plaintiffs and the National Federation of the Blind have sued Social Security to get that changed. The federation’s spokesman, Chris Danielson, joined Federal Drive with Tom Temin with more.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Mr. Danielson Good to have you on.

Chris Danielson: Good to be here. Tom, thank you for having us. Thanks for reaching out to the National Federation of the Blind.

Tom Temin: So what is the issue here with respect to them not taking online? How does this affect people with disabilities or people who might be sight impaired?

Chris Danielson: So it affects us in a couple of ways. The position we’ve taken in the lawsuit is this was always discriminatory, particularly in a day and age when a lot of things even dealing with the federal government are done online. And Social Security actually does take applications online. It just won’t take an application online if you happen to be using a representative or ironically, if you are a blind person applying for supplemental security income. Other people who are applying for supplemental security Income can apply online, but we as blind people cannot. And there’s no good reason for this. We feel very strongly in the National Federation of the Blind, that technology can be a big help to us, always assuming it’s accessible and there are specific accessibility requirements that the federal government has to meet under Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act. And so it should be accessible but of course, we can work with the Social Security Administration on that if needed and then it should be fine to just apply online. And particularly now with the coronavirus pandemic, a lot of blind people have other health conditions. Diabetes, for example, is often cited as the leading cause of blindness in the United States. And if you have diabetes, or you have certain other conditions, you are immunocompromised. So it’s not possible for a lot of blind people to sign paperwork independently because you have to know where to sign it, where to put your signature. And somebody has to help you with that and they can’t do it while observing proper social distancing. So the more physical paperwork you have to deal with, the more dangerous it is in this time of the coronavirus and COVID-19.

Tom Temin: Sure. And you actually beat me to a question I wanted to ask as an aside, and that is all else aside, how are the Social Security websites with respect to 508 compliance do they generally help people that have trouble seeing or reading or hearing or whatever the case might be when they visit SSA sites?

Chris Danielson: My limited personal experience with the Social Security websites is that they are pretty accessible. I don’t want to get into the technical details of full 508 compliance because that’s meeting certain technical standards. But what I can say is that I’ve used a screen reader, I’m blind myself, and I’ve used a screen reader on the social security websites, and they do appear to be accessible. So given that it would be really helpful to blind people if we are able to do the entire application online, even if we’re using a representative.

Tom Temin: Now, this has been the case for I guess forever since there has been online application forms for Social Security. So is the reason this lawsuit is filed now because of the pandemic in the social distancing requirements?

Chris Danielson: Yes sir. That is certainly made this more urgent. In the National Federation of the Blind, like any organization that does advocacy, we always have to balance various priorities at different times. But there are a lot of unique issues that blind people are facing during COVID-19. And a lot of blind people are having to apply for benefits now because they have lost, like a lot of other people, they have lost whatever employment they had, at least temporarily. And so there’s an urgent need to apply and there’s an urgent need to be able to do so without violating social distancing and subjecting ourselves to the risk of COVID-19.

Tom Temin: And what reaction have you had from Social Security? Well, first of all, Are they aware of this problem before the lawsuit? I imagine you must have petitioned them over the years to say hey, come on, let us file electronically even with a third party, help.

Chris Danielson: I can’t speak specifically to what communications we had prior to the lawsuit. I can say that it is usually our practice to communicate with people before we file a lawsuit. And so I would hazard that we did have communication with them. We’ve certainly communicated with the Social Security Administration plenty over the years about various things. We even had another lawsuit recently that was settled about their kiosks at their field offices, because those weren’t completely accessible to blind people either. That has now been remedied, but we’ve still got this other issue and the lawsuit was obviously just filed recently. I haven’t been updated on any negotiations yet, but given the urgency of the situation, there seem to be some interest in hopefully in resolving it quickly. At least by the court. So we’ll see if that moves negotiations along.

Tom Temin: And what is your understanding of the reason that they require the wet signature when there’s a third party helping someone apply? Just because they want to make sure that someone’s not applying fraudulently on behalf of someone else that they’ve named?

Chris Danielson: I would guess that that’s the rationale. But it doesn’t make any sense to us. Because if you’re worried about people who aren’t eligible or who are pretending to be someone else applying, you know, you’ve already got an online application process, I guess, you know, you want to make sure that the person has actually authorized the representative. But there are certainly ways that you could do that without requiring a wetting signature, even if it’s by some combination by some other means than online. You know, there’s always a good old phone call to confirm people are who they say they are and all of that. And again, the Social Security Administration regularly does business that way. So we haven’t been able to figure it out what specific security concerns or fraud concerns they’re claiming apply to this particular situation.

Tom Temin: And what is the disposition of the case now? Do you have court dates or what’s the timeline as you envision it?

Chris Danielson: Well, normally litigation takes quite a long time. But my understanding is that there was some interest by the court. I don’t know exactly about dates, but there was some interest by the court in expediting things, kind of moving the case along more quickly than would normally be the case. So we’re hoping that that is the case, and that that will also speed up negotiations if the Social Security Administration is willing to talk to us, so that we can move this along and get this resolved so that it’s useful to people it’s obviously a time sensitive piece. And courts are being pretty good about situations that directly implicate the coronavirus. We’ve also been involved in some matters related to absentee voting and things like that. And courts are very sensitive to the need to expedite things that specifically implicate the health risks of coronavirus.

Tom Temin: Chris Danielson, his spokesperson for the National Federation of the Blind, thanks so much for joining me.

Chris Danielson: You are very welcome. Thanks so much again for having us. We really appreciate the interest.

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