Three decades after the Americans with Disabilities Act was signed into law, individuals with mobility limitations continue to face daily obstacles toward accessing the same opportunities available to their fellow citizens.
Older buildings and public infrastructure take time to change. The same cannot be said about an edifice of outdated legal requirements that could be changed with the swipe of a pen.
Example: The Social Security Administration (SSA) requires all individuals who are applying for Social Security Disability Insurance with the help of a representative to complete their applications by submitting a hard-copy, ink-signed form. Setting aside all the challenges this can present to someone who is mobility-impaired, this process adds weeks, if not months to an individual’s wait for this vital financial support.
At a time when financial transactions of all kinds can be completed online, this policy is discriminatory and a violation of the rights of individuals with disabilities. That’s why my organization, the United Spinal Association, filed a lawsuit to end the practice (United Spinal Association Inc. v. Andrew M. Saul).
As our lawsuit states, the “wet ink” signature requirement, violates several key provisions of the Administrative Procedure Act (APA), which “prevents agency actions that are arbitrary; capricious; abuse of discretion; contrary to law; contrary to constitutional right, power, privilege, or immunity; in excess of statutory jurisdiction, authority, or limitations; or without observance of procedure required by law.” More broadly, it also “violates the First Amendment’s protection for citizens seeking to petition and otherwise communicate with the government through the representatives of their choice.”
By requiring wet ink signatures, SSA fails to comply with multiple federal mandates, including the Paperwork Reduction Act of 1995, the Government Paper Elimination Act, and the Electronic Signatures in Global and National Commerce Act. All of these acts were clear expressions by Congress of its desire to make the government more accessible by eliminating obsolete paper forms and processes.
A wide range of government institutions already accepts electronic signatures unequivocally. The IRS is one prominent example, but it’s far from the only one. The Department of Veterans Affairs accepts documents that have been signed electronically. The Department of Housing and Urban Development does the same. Medicare enrollment can be completed without picking up a pen, too.
If these agencies, among others, have successfully embraced and abided by these rules, it is unfathomable that the agency responsible for those most in need of accommodation has not. There is no justification nor logical reason the SSA cannot accept that same electronic signature when a representative is assisting the applicant, especially because the agency’s own statistics confirm that claims submitted with the help of a representative are much more likely to be accepted, at all levels of the process.
Following an earlier lawsuit by the National Federation for the Blind, the SSA agreed to make temporary exceptions to these rules, but the individuals applying for disability benefits need a more lasting solution. This isn’t just a matter of inconvenience, nor temporary risk. The longer individuals with disabilities have to wait to submit their SSDI and/or SSI application, the longer they and their families have to go without the income that they’ve rightfully earned. Among the 250,000 Americans who have a spinal cord injury that I represent, approximately 40,000 are Veterans.
One car accident, fall, or a brave act of service for our country can cause a devastating spinal cord injury. Imagine for a moment what that would mean for any individual who has a family to support or lives independently. It would mean that the paychecks would soon stop coming and that until their federal disability benefits would be approved, that family or individual may struggle to put food on the table or worse, to hold onto housing accommodations.
It’s time to fix this, once and for all.
James Weisman is a disability rights lawyer and is President and CEO of the United Spinal Association, a nonprofit organization dedicated to enhancing the quality of life of all people living with spinal cord injuries and disorder.