At the Birth of the Rehabilitation Act (part one)
By Miriam Hertz
In Mathews v. Eldridge, 424 U.S. 319 (1976), the U.S. Supreme Court found that Eldridge had not been denied due process when his Social Security disability benefits were terminated prior to an evidentiary hearing.
As part of the Social Security Administration’s appeals process, all Social Security beneficiaries in Eldridge’s position would be entitled to a hearing, but only after benefits were terminated. Even though Eldridge and any Social Security beneficiary in Eldridge’s position would receive retroactive benefits should their termination be reversed with benefits reinstated, Eldridge sued rather than follow Social Security Administration procedures.
Why did Eldridge sue rather than adhere to the administrative appeals process? I ask this because in my line of work, I generally advise people who are in a situation akin to Eldridge to give the established line of procedure a go (at least before they sue).
The year 1976 – the year of Mathews v. Eldridge – was a heady time for disability rights in the United States. The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 had been passed three years before, establishing that no federal entity or entity in receipt of federal funds could discriminate against people with disabilities. And in 1977, the year after Mathews v. Eldridge, disability rights activists staged a 25-day sit in at the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare in San Francisco to force the signing of federal regulations to implement the Rehabilitation Act. Equal treatment of people with disabilities by federal entities and federal-funded entities truly was the law of the land now.
By claiming a lack of due process in the Social Security Administration’s procedures, was Eldridge taking a stand for something bigger – for the rights of people with disabilities?
Before approving disability benefits, the Social Security Administration requires evidence of a medical impairment, i.e., diagnostic codes, and documentation that establishes substantial limitation to an applicant’s work functionality. But the impact of a medical diagnosis on the individual generally extends beyond the medical to the experienced social and cultural consequences of being “labelled disabled.” The brilliance of the Rehabilitation Act was that it was the first piece of federal anti-discrimination legislation to emphasize a sociocultural model of disability over a medical model of disability.
So, maybe Eldridge was taking a stand for disability rights. Are there clues in Mathews v. Eldridge that Eldridge’s perspective on disability was rooted in the newly minted sociocultural model of disability? Find out more next month!