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Thousands Of Non-English Speakers To Be Denied Disability Benefits Under New Rule

  March 6, 2020 | By Arthur Delaney, HuffPost

Ly La is a 50-year-old refugee from Myanmar with an artificial valve in her heart whose doctors say she can’t do physically demanding work.

The government turned her down repeatedly for disability benefits, but she won her claim on appeal last year. An administrative law judge noted her myriad health problems and also the fact that she can’t speak English.

The money has changed her life. Without the $783 per month, La said through an interpreter, “I think I would die.”

La’s case is one example of how the Social Security Administration considers English proficiency when considering disability claims by older people ― or at least how it used to.

The Trump administration is changing the rules. Starting next month, Social Security will no longer factor lack of English when it evaluates whether someone with a severe disability is capable of working. La might have qualified anyway, due to her limited education, but others will not.

Going forward, roughly 10,000 fewer Americans will qualify for benefits annually, according to the administration’s estimate. Most of them will likely shuffle along with lower incomes until they can qualify for Social Security retirement benefits.

The English rule is the first ― and in terms of how many people are affected, probably the smallest ― of three pending regulations designed to trim disability enrollment. It’s one of many administration regulations targeting housing, food and health care benefits ― all done without a say from Congress.

The administration argues that being unable to speak English is less of a barrier to gainful employment than it used to be. Also, the administration says language has been a factor in too many disability awards for residents of Puerto Rico, where most people speak Spanish.

Puerto Rico accounted for nearly a third of all claims that were allowed partly due to lack of English in 2016, officials said last year in the draft version of the rule. In response to criticism that it shouldn’t change rules based on a single year of data from a single U.S. territory ― reflecting a fraction of a percent of overall claims ― the administration insisted that Puerto Rico was only one reason for the policy change.

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