Consulting with the Bureau of Hearings and Appeals always produced an assortment of pickles that folks get themselves into. Gertrude was one of these, who presented both the good news and the bad news at a disability hearing, not necessarily in that order. Gertrude’s testimony under oath was so rare as to be noteworthy, and revealed the quality of her character.
As a vocational expert witness, I was routinely advised that I was not making the final decision. At the same time, I was the only person who provided bad news in the hearing when I believed it appropriate. The bad news was that jobs in significant numbers exist in the region the claimant could perform in open competition with others. After specifying jobs of this nature and responding to any cross-examination by the claimant or counsel, the hearing was then closed. Except in rare occasions I was never told the final decision.
Gertrude was a sewing machine operator in a garment plant for many years. At 50+ years of age she was a trusted employee and always managed to fulfill her performance quota on or before quitting time. The work is tedious and relentless, and requires a very special individual to face such a routine every day.
It is possible for the right individual to work successfully as a power machine operator and hallucinate on a regular basis. One lady on the job talked continuously to another person who was not there. Because her talking was distracting to the other employees, who could neither see nor talk to this invisible person, she was separated by some considerable distance from her fellow workers.
For Gertrude, the bad news happened one day when she and her family were enjoying a day at the lake. Gertrude was able to get up on water skis with little difficulty, but she had not mastered the various maneuvers needed to stay out of trouble while being pulled at high speed by the boat. On rounding one turn she said she misjudged her speed, ran ashore on the skis, and hit a tree.
The impact with the tree broke bones in Gertrude’s arm and did major damage to the muscles and connective tissue in the same hand and wrist. By the time the bones in the arm had healed the fingers and wrist had developed complications. At the hearing fourteen months after the accident she testified that she had just completed her last physical therapy treatment, and was no longer required to wear the splint on her hand and wrist. She had finally regained almost full finger motion, and the strength in the arm and hand was almost back to normal.
Somewhat surprisingly, Gertrude added under oath that she had actually returned to her old job at work and although she was still not back to her usual performance, she believed she would be able to work at least as well as most of the other workers. The judge asked her for the date she had returned to her old job, which was about 13 months after her initial injury.
Social Security disability requires that an impairment must last, or be expected to last a year to qualify for benefits. When otherwise qualified, benefits are not paid for the first six months. Given this minimum expectation the judge asked if I believed she was disabled within the meaning of the law, and whether a closed period of benefits should be paid appropriately given Gertrude’s circumstances. I testified my agreement, and I presume Gertrude was paid disability benefits up to the point at which she actually returned to work.
What was unusual and refreshing about Gertrude was her frank and open demeanor, unlike the usual demeanor of many disability claimants. As a rule they enter as though they must demonstrate pain and discomfort, making it come alive both before and after their testimony. When an individual experiences acute pain the syndrome is real and the behavior is classic. While some disability claimants show these signs clearly, most are poor actors. When the medical information provides little support for the presence of acute discomfort, credibility becomes an issue.
One claimant was wheeled into the hearing room on a collapsible litter. This allowed him to act out the full display of the extent of his pain and suffering while getting off of and back onto the litter. He was accompanied, of course, by his legal counsel who may well have put him up to this theatrical charade for the benefit of the court.
The possibility of receiving a check as payment for disability plays games with the normal human. When pain and suffering is real there is little need for acting the part. As the pain and suffering diminishes or disappears the checks often continues, and playacting must justify this continuing support. It is a deceptive and insidious perversion which cheats the individual of his or her fullest functioning.
Gertrude’s return to work before her hearing was an act of faith, and demonstrated her conviction that working was more valuable to her over the long haul than receiving benefits from the government. Returning to work as soon as possible minimizes the development of internal demons during periods of inactivity, which tend to grow in us all.
Gertrude was not about to let that happen.