Conducting Business with Social Security: What You Should Know and How You Can Help, by Len Burns

Are you a person with a disability in the United States who requires reasonable accommodations to conduct business with the Social Security Administration?  Do you believe you have a right to request the reasonable accommodations best suited to the requirements of your disability when communicating with Social Security?  If so, you could be in for a rude awakening!  I certainly was in for a shock four years ago when I assumed my role as my mother's representative payee.
 
As many of you know, in October 2009, the decision won by Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund (DREDF) on behalf of the American Council of the Blind (ACB) required the SSA to provide communications in an accessible format to qualified individuals with disabilities receiving Social Security benefits and representative payees.  This knowledge was a relief to me as a blind person assuming the role of representative payee on behalf of my mother in early 2010.  A year later, when the first accounting report was due, I was in for an education.
 
The information that might have enabled me to complete the accounting report on-line was missing from the form I received on CD.  I was informed it was omitted "so as to not confuse the blind using screen readers."  Even if I'd had the information, the web application provided to complete this task had accessibility problems serious enough that I would not have risked it on something as precise as an end-of-the-year accounting report.  I communicated my concerns to DREDF.  Shortly thereafter I filed an administrative complaint against the SSA.  My complaint was unsuccessful. From that point to the present, DREDF has assisted me in my attempts to find a resolution of this matter that would provide all of us the options we justly deserve when conducting business with Social Security.
 
A number of appeals later, here is the SSA's position that applies to all of us. If you are a qualified person with a disability who needs to submit information to the SSA, you have three choices: You may arrange a phone appointment during which a representative will assist you, you may visit a field office, or you may request an electronic fillable form from your local field office or by contacting the SSA call center. If you choose either of the first two options, SSA cannot or will not provide you with the resulting completed documents in a format of your choice for your own records.  Considering the number of errors made by Social Security and the serious impact of such errors, the first two choices can be risky.  If you request an electronic fillable form, Social Security has up to 45 days to decide if it will provide one and give you an official response.
 
Experience strongly suggests this deadline is rarely honored.  If your request is denied, your only recourse is an administrative complaint to which Social Security has 180 days to respond. This is far beyond reason.
 
I am not writing to convince you how best to communicate with the Social Security Administration; each of us must decide what is best for our disability needs and unique life circumstances.  I am here to tell you that Social Security currently discriminates against those of us who prefer to conduct our business via electronic means, enabling us to independently verify information before it is submitted and preserve a copy for our personal records.  A sighted citizen would be outraged were he or she required to submit a special request and wait 45 days just to learn whether a form would be made available!  It is time we insist upon equal respect.
 
I am working with DREDF to address these matters.  We need to hear from you.  We would very much like to hear about your experiences utilizing fillable or online forms to communicate with SSA.  As mentioned above, SSA has stated that its policy is to consider providing fillable forms only on request.  That means that if you need a fillable form that is not on its web site, you need to contact SSA and request it.
 
We'd like to know if you have requested a fillable form or the ability to submit responses on-line. What response did you receive and within what time frame?  What experiences have you had asking for help to complete a form?  What experiences have you had submitting the few forms that are available online? Here is a link to a page on the SSA web site regarding currently available online forms: www.socialsecurity.gov/online/.
 
What concerns do you have, if any, about these policies and practices?  If you want a fillable form but haven't asked for one, we recommend that you do, and note how SSA representatives handle your request, including date of contact, and whom you reached. You can call the 800 number or contact your local field office.