It’s a cool morning in Southern California and I’m driving to the social security office one town over. An appointment has been made by the online system so that I could meet with a social worker about my application for Disability. I am twenty-six and have been disabled since birth, but the word disabled still throws a flag in my head every time I say it. Tripped over and stumbled through, it leaves my mouth with none of the practiced grace and indigenous confidence I find in other words, like irregardless or no. For me, its utterance is a sign of surrender. To borrow from General Lee at Appomattox, ‘I would rather die a thousand deaths’ than admit it, but I’ve run out of other options.
I’m applying for Disability because I, like everyone else, need health insurance.
The office of Social Security in my county does not have its own building, instead it’s inside and up a few floors of what looks like a trendy downtown office space. There’s a parking garage across the street. From the strategic research I did on the Internet, I know one of the requirements for disability is the inability to walk more than a half-block or so without stopping for breath. Sometimes that’s me, other times I surprise myself. Crossing the street, the thought occurs that one could look out the windows above to watch and see if you’re really disabled. I had made an appointment after all and how hard could it be to secretly monitor for potential fraud? It’s what I would do, and I do my research on the Internet. I pass a nice garden area on the way in and a doorman immediately directs me to the elevators. In my harsh whisper voice I tell him where I’m going and, without a word to confirm he understands, a button is pushed and a floor selected. The doors close and he promptly steps out.
The social security office is probably the entire floor, but the dimly lit corridors lead only to a large waiting room packed with people. Other people wait in a line that continues to grow as I approach. A tough woman in a uniform guards the entrance from the lined up people. I watch someone attempt to enter the office and get rebuffed firmly. The Guard is not nice about it, but there’s no malice in her voice. It’s a small comfort. Not wanting to draw attention to myself lest I bring her justice upon me, I join the others in line.
Moments later, a middle-aged white lady lines up behind me. She reminds me of my mother. Soon after, a few more people, Hispanic this time, join us and I’m quickly hidden among the organized herd waiting to get in. The white lady strikes up a conversation and, to my surprise, manages to roll with the punches of my voice impediment, which is rarer than one hopes. She tells me why she’s here, it’s nothing big. I tell her my reason, mentally practicing for the interrogation to come. And then, she does something odd. When I mention I have an appointment, She apologizes for her failure to do the same. I learn I’m in the wrong line. This is the line for those who do not have an appointment, the glum queue for those who either did not or could not make an account online and/or call the automated number in order to receive an assigned time with a social worker. I thank her, wish her well and promptly step out.
I have an appointment. The Guard lets me in.
The inside of the actual office looks like a doctor’s waiting room, except for the security window booths and a pair of ATM-like machines in the corner. Every single seat is occupied by elderly or otherwise meek individuals. Clearly the kind of crowd that necessitates guards and bullet-proof glass. The machine in the corner recognizes my information and spits out a ticket. Minutes later, I’m called to the window booth and talked at by a lady behind a speaker box. She asks for my paperwork, I hand her the ticket and a copy of my apartment lease, which the Internet said to bring. She checks my information again and tells me to have a seat. There are no seats so I join the smaller crowd of younger folk skulking near the back. The elderly don’t skulk. There’s a door on the other side of the room. I’m pretty sure it’s the door. One by one or in quiet groups, people are called to go through the door. In my time watching, I don’t see anyone leave. My name gets called, and I go through.
On the other side is not the torture chamber one expects, but a series of cubicles and tragically old computers. A furtive look at the screens reveals archaic black backgrounds with colored text. My apprehension turns to pity, if only momentarily. I sit down with my social worker and discover she’s an actual human being. Really. She’s nice and laughs at my nervous banter about the weather. No I don’t find it cold here, yet. We go over my information, she browses through the paperwork I brought and generally seems happy to help. What she doesn’t do, as she pecks her way through the ancient software, is tell me what the chances are of my application being accepted. My attempts to elicit more information is met with a distracted look. She’s focused so I shut up. Finally, after an interminable span of minutes, she looks up from her work and says that’s it.
That’s it. What do you mean? Do I qualify?
She smiles, stacks her papers and then lets slip, “Oh, yeah, you’ll get it. You’re severely disabled.”
And she’s done. I thank her for her time and collect the paperwork. I’m halfway home when I realize I’m not angry or sad or bitter or anything of the things I had expected to feel after a surrender. She called me severely disabled and I did nothing to disabuse her of that notion. In the struggle against being labeled something that carries, for me, every connotation of being overlooked and undervalued, I had just been dealt a decisive defeat. And yet, all I felt was the sensation of putting down a heavy backpack. What I had forgot, what I’ve been forgetting most of my life but finally remembered on the way home from the social security office is that I am not Robert E Lee. I am not a general waging a war against an organized enemy. If anything, I’m just a soldier among thousands. It’s not on me to change the world. It’s not on anybody to do it alone. The veil had lifted and asking for help was no longer seen as a weakness but a sign of strength. It wasn’t about the health insurance. It was about understanding the world was far bigger than my petty squabbles. So what if I’m surrendering to this part of me that I’ve long denied. Only the ghosts of my past are left to gloat.
The car window is rolled down because I like sticking my hand out and feeling the breeze. The radio plays loudly, probably classic rock. Driving home under the California sky, I chew on the new label of severely disabled. More registered in the system than I’ve ever been, I’ve never felt more free.