Poverty & Disability: A Most Dangerous Combination

Poverty plus disability equals death sentence. They’re like bleach and ammonia: if the twain do meet and there are no windows for you to open, you’re history. This is about someone who found a window or two but could have just as easily asphyxiated.

He was born into the middle class but a custody battle (and, later, his mother’s drug problems) ensured that he grew up in poverty. Due to undiagnosed ASD and incredible stressors related to his family life, he ended up institutionalized and then, later, abused in a group home. The traumatization would affect him in a way that wouldn’t become evident until many years later. For the time being, he was busy working his way into a fairly well-paying IT job. Not that attaining it meant his life was much easier, mind you. As a young adult with a decent job, he was taxed with supporting his newly-sober mother as well as his youngest sibling.

The result of his trauma surfaced without him noticing at first. If you lack health insurance, a little pain and fogginess are not something about which you have the resources to worry. As his symptoms escalated, he couldn’t help but notice, especially when everything starting falling apart for him. He lost his job, and then, devoid of adequate income, his car and finally his home in rapid succession. His symptoms were consistent with ever-worsening fibromyalgia, a condition likely initially triggered by his childhood experiences.

an image of two hands with text describing the symptoms of fibromyalgia

As he couch-surfed his way through homelessness, he began to realize that his line of work, IT, was wholly incompatible with his degenerating physical and mental condition, and so he initiated the long process of making a disability claim. Lacking a car, proper nutrition, care for his condition, and even access to water and electricity at times meant that his work prospects would have been grim even in a robust economy. Add the fact that he was looking for work in a recession and the projected outlook goes from grim to downright impossible.

Though his job prospects might have been bleak, the rest of his life wasn’t wholly so. A chance crossing of paths meant that he didn’t end up dead: he met me three years ago, and, through me, a group of friends willing to help him. Together, we have endured the personal side of the world’s generalized indifference to the plight of the poor and disabled. Wanting to be able to help him kicked me out of a period of lethargic complacency and into a quest to seek better employment despite the fact that I am a doomed recession-era graduate. More importantly, his support and encouragement are what bolstered my confidence to the point where I don’t need him to tell me that I am worthy of good things.

on left, a woman is smiling and dressed in a Carmen Sandiego costume. on right, a man dressed up as Where's Waldo? is shrugging with a smile.
A photograph of some trees and bushes.

The United States Social Security Administration as well as my local Office of Disability Adjudication and Review might believe that he is unworthy of the most basic things, i.e. timely and honest responses to his inquiries into the status of his disability case (no really, the details are that bad), but I believe that he is worthy of the best things. Even as I’ve been humbled by the kindness of strangers and friends in helping him out of homelessness, it enrages me to think that if he hadn’t sent me that message on OkCupid back in the summer of 2010, he would likely be in a far worse position.

So while this story has a happy ending (at least for now), I can’t help but wonder how many Dannys didn’t manage to meet their Heina, or who don’t have a Heina out there for them. I could say that someone as talented, compassionate, supportive, and brilliantly auto-didactic as the particular poor and disabled person in my life doesn’t deserve to suffer. But really, should economic status coupled with genetic predispositions be a death sentence for those who, for whatever reason, aren’t loved by someone privileged enough to help?

a street art depiction of the OkCupid logo
And also who are good at sending OkCupid messages.

Only the most heartless Randist would say “yes” without hesitation to that. The rest of us generally would say no but do little to work towards a world where the answer to that is actually no. The intersection of classism and ableism is a perilous and oft-overlooked one. The fact that we don’t see it is, for the unlucky ones, literally a matter of life and death.

Heina Dadabhoy

Heina Dadabhoy [hee-na dad-uh-boy] spent her childhood as a practicing Muslim who never in her right mind would have believed that she would grow up to be an atheist feminist secular humanist, or, in other words, a Skepchick. She has been an active participant in atheist organizations and events in and around Orange County, CA since 2007. She is currently writing A Skeptic's Guide to Islam. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter, or Google+.

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  1. I have both fibro and EDS, along with a few other things including major mental health issues. I am deeply lucky to live in Scotland, where my drugs are all free, as is access to doctors and other primary healthcare. Sometimes I complain that the remedial deep tissue massage that really helps me isn’t available on the NHS but then I remember how much my monthly cocktail of drugs costs and I get the fuck over it.

    However, while we are not in danger of going bankrupt because of medical bills, the cycle of poverty and disability is getting worse over here too. Under our current administration, although it was started with the old one, the sick and the disabled are being sacrificed on the altar of austerity long before anyone dares to talk about reforming the tax cuts for the wealthiest members of our society. Every initiative that could make life better for disabled and sick people is being removed, even though anyone with the slightest interest in complex economics could talk for ages about how cost-cutting in that way ends up costing a whole lot more later on as people become housebound and stop paying taxes on fuel and purchases and need more home care. Involvement in society and independence for the affected person help them contribute to society in so many more ways than just costing some money.

    The vagaries of our disability assistance processes are well-documented and I could talk for hours and hours and hours about them – how despicably unfair, unethical and nonsensical they are – but the essence is that poverty and disability go hand in hand, and being disabled is fucking expensive. People don’t really realise how much. When you force an otherwise healthy person to live on subsistence level food, they feel the effects of it on their physical and mental health pretty quickly. For a sick person, that effect can be devastating.

  2. I’d just like to say that a picture of Waldo and Carmen Sandiego finding each other is the ultimate combination of nerd culture and romance I have ever seen.

  3. Someone I loved had a psychotic episode and for weeks on end she lived in constant fear of being attacked and murdered by the police. Eventually she had a police contact and they took her to the hospital and kicked her out a day later with a piece of paper giving her permission to buy medicine.

    When I went to buy the medicine the guy told me it was $400. I didn’t have that much money. In that moment I asked myself how far I was willing to go to get that money. The answer to that question made me physically sick.

    I believe the people responsible for this situation belong in prison.

  4. The lack of reasonable and avalable mental health care has been a problem for a long time but the main reason there has been a significant shortage of inpatient and outpatient mental health services since the 1980’s is Ronald Fucking Reagan. And every president that has followed also gets a share of the responsibility as well as anyone who’s complained about paying taxes that go toward programs that help protect the vulnerable and provide necessary mental health services for children and adults.

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