It is enough for him to buy food and put gas in his 2005 Dodge truck, where he is living.
It is not enough for him to pay for his blood pressure medication.
Those details of Ashlock’s life are laid out in a lawsuit that was filed in federal court in the District this week, and they matter because they show what is happening in the shadow of those multibillion-dollar government bailouts that are going to companies that aren’t being forced to jump through hoops.
They show a man who needs help from the government, but who can’t even ask for it without putting himself at risk.
After Ashlock decided to apply for disability benefits from the Social Security Administration with the help of a lawyer, he learned that he would need to sign the paperwork by hand and mail it in. He would have to do that despite not having an address, the ability to read text on paper without significantly magnifying it, and it being safer for him to keep his distance from other people right now because he has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Last month, he went to the hospital because he was experiencing shortness of breath and chest pains.
“When I was released from the hospital, the doctors said it might not be a good idea to go to a shelter at the moment because of the pandemic,” Ashlock says in a statement that was submitted to the court. “I am trying to stay on my own as much as possible to avoid COVID-19.”
Ashlock is one of four people who along with the National Federation of the Blind are named as plaintiffs in the lawsuit that could affect people with disabilities across the country. It aims to force the Social Security Administration to stop requiring “wet-ink” signatures from people requesting Social Security Disability Insurance and Supplemental Security Income.
That may sound like a paperwork issue. But it is more than that. Peel away the legalese and, at its core, the lawsuit is about how the federal government is failing to make sure that some of the people who most need help are getting it.
It also highlights an unnecessary barrier that exists at other levels of government and shouldn’t in 2020 when technology has made it possible for kindergartners to Zoom with their teachers and taxes to be seamlessly filed online.
The lawsuit argues that the Social Security Administration is placing people who are turning to it for help at risk of “serious illness” and “death” by refusing, during a pandemic, to accept electronic signatures from people who are blind and have other disabilities that require them to get help to fill out paper documents. What was a discriminatory practice during normal times, it contends, is now a dangerous one because of the pandemic.
“Now, it’s not just an annoying access issue,” says Mark Riccobono, the president of the National Federation of the Blind. “It can be a life-or-death issue.”
He says many of the organization’s more than 50,000 members have other health issues that place them at higher risk of falling victim to covid-19. They also don’t all have family members who are willing to help them fill out paperwork or whom they trust with their private information.
“We see it as an equality issue,” Riccobono says. “We think the government should lead and innovate, not put up more barriers.”
Many blind and visually impaired people are able to access digital versions of print using assistive technology that enlarges text on screens, conveys it through a computerized voice or converts it to Braille through a refreshable Braille display device.
Riccobono says he understands the need for the government to put in place gates to protect itself against fraud. But the signature issue, he says, is the equivalent of putting stairs in front of a building “instead of a ramp.”
Eve Hill, an attorney with the Baltimore-based law firm Brown, Goldstein & Levy, which filed the lawsuit, says the Social Security Administration already processes some disability benefit applications online but won’t allow for electronic signatures in circumstances involving people who are represented by attorneys or are blind.
“It’s ironic to make blind people apply through a paper process for benefits they are getting because they are blind,” Hill says. “When you’re blind you shouldn’t have to tell your neighbor your Social Security number and all your personal information and hope that neighbor fills everything out correctly because you can’t verify it.”
The lawsuit, she says, comes at a time when more people with disabilities are finding themselves unemployed and in need of financial help. Last month, about 150,000 people applied for disabilities benefits.
The agency has also taken steps during the pandemic to protect its own employees, including closing offices and checking mail less frequently, according to the lawsuit. But it hasn’t changed its requirements, Hill says, to also protect the people it serves.
The Social Security Administration will have time to respond to the claims in the lawsuit, which has not yet been assigned any court dates.
In the meantime, Hill says, the plaintiffs are hoping that response is one that will make the process easier for them and others in their circumstances.
“There is no money in this for any of them,” she says. “They are just doing it because it can’t be this way.”
The four people live across the country and have different reasons for not being able to easily complete the documents by hand and mail them.
One is a 48-year-old woman in Michigan who has been blind her entire life and now takes care of her father, who has Parkinson’s disease.
Another is a 54-year-old man in Florida who worked as an administrative assistant at a condo until last May, when his non-Hodgkin’s mantle cell lymphoma caused him to stop. He wore a mask outside his house even before the pandemic.
Another is a 61-year-old man in Utah who used to work as a truck driver and in construction. Now he has back problems that make it difficult for him to walk 10 feet some days, and a stroke in January left him blind in one eye and with blurry vision in the other.
He doesn’t have health insurance or a printer or an easy way to get his mail.
His mailbox, he said in his statement, is located down a dirt road about a mile and a half from his house.
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