|I sat in the small hearing room, listening to the Judge and the Occupational Expert both discuss my prospects of employability with more than a slight sense of the surreal. As they debated the relative transferability of my insurance skills to other types of employment, I grew edgier. I knew the topic of my verbalization skills (or lack thereof) was going to have to enter the discussion at some point and the sooner the better. Perhaps, I should begin at the beginning.
It has been two and a half years, thirty months, since I experienced a debilitating cerebral-vascular stroke. This left me with left-side weakness and semi-profound speech impairment. During this long hiatus, I have been unable to work. This resulted in my losing everything: job, money, living situation, etc (in a word: everything). After experiencing homelessness and wearing out my welcome at my sister’s, I am currently residing in a faith-based homeless shelter and I will remain here until my benefits commence.
As stated above, the atmosphere was chilling in this hearing room. The whole experience had a sort of disquieting effect beginning with our entrance into the building. In these terror conscious times, every federal building has guards at every entrance. This place was no exception but here the guard did not instill any sense of confidence. She must have been in her 70s – pushing 80 easily, weighing in at about 110 pounds and lacking any social grace whatsoever. I do not suppose they hire these people based on their charm school credentials. This one, however, brought surliness to a new high.
Ushering us in with a gruff, “Sign in please,” she never budged from her somnolent slouch in her recliner. After this less than convivial prelude, she hooked her thumb in the general direction of the elevator bank and barked, “Fourth floor.” My sister and I (she was accompanying to this hearing), after exchanging knowing glances, sidled away from Miss Congeniality and entered the first available lift. “There was a woman happy in her work,” my sister opined and we both chortled in palpable relief.
As it turned out, this was only the beginning of the security-dance at the SSA. At the door to the hearing room waiting area sat a desk commandeered by yet another guard: this one much younger and certainly more imposing. He quickly snapped to as we entered and brusquely offered a curt “Empty your pockets.” “They must offer group sensitivity training,” was my thinking at the time and from the look on my sister’s face it was hers as well.
I stood with my arms outstretched, as instructed, as the guard, ignoring the cane dangling precariously from my extended arm, scanned my body for weapons. Once completed, he brusquely instructed us to take a seat. To my mild surprise, he extended this brazen lack of civility in the guise of a security protocol to all who entered even his fellow employees.
Another attendee, a fellow peace officer as it turned out, afforded him an occasion to regale us with tales how of the Reserves – I assumed for the armed forces – denied him the opportunity to serve. It is just as well – the guardianship of SSA could scarcely have done without him. Later on, he would again demonstrate his indispensability when only he had the code to unlock the door to the hearing room.
Before this demonstration, however, we still had to deal with more ineptitude. This took the form of yet another SSA employee who could not open a file on the computer to review my file. This person had already assured us they would be able to assist us. I informed them I had already reviewed the file and they breathed a sigh of relief secure in the knowledge that they would not have to demonstrate their inability to operate the computer. I was glad not to have to share in their embarrassment, anyway.
Back again in the hearing room, the air of anticipation was thick enough to cut with a knife. Two years plus and it was all about to end in one way or the other. The judge swore everyone in and the hearing began. After taking testimony from my sister as regards to my abilities dealing with household activities, the Judge began questioning the Occupational Expert about jobs available to someone with the physical limitations I exhibited. Some discussion regarding towel folders and fruit sorters followed to which I listened with no small trepidation. Finally, unexpectedly, the judge voiced his intention to find me eligible for full benefits.
I was somewhat in shock. As I noted elsewhere, strong emotions tend to translate into crying jags for me. I was suddenly overwhelmed with relief as well as emotional release: the tears fell, sobs racked my frame; after 30 long months, the finality was too much. Because of the blood thinner I am taking, my nose started bleeding adding to the drama of the moment. My sister comforted me and the other participants appeared moved. As for me, I slowly rose and stumbled to the door.
I returned to the waiting area bounded by the stares of those assembled. I took several moments to compose myself. After letting what had transpired sink in, I slowly smiled and began to enjoy my newfound status. I was disabled and the government recognized this. There was a time when this would have appalled me but after what I had been through it was welcome. Life henceforth would be quite different; at present, I knew not how but I was surely ready to find out.
© Copyright Stephen Alexander 2008