Disabled, Giving Back

I was visiting a food bank in DeKalb County, Georgia when I met “Jane”. At first I mistook her for a client – she was watching me out of the corner of her eye, and kept hanging around the edges of the conversation I was having with the director of the program.

As I left she caught up with me and asked if she could share her story. In her former life she was a figure skater, teacher and judge, and also worked as a japanese translator. She owned  her own home and car, and enjoyed a typical middle class life. Then one day she was bit by a tick and developed Lyme disease.

During the process of being diagnosed she tried desperately to find her birth mother, in order to get detailed family medical history that might help with her diagnosis. Though she was ultimately successful, it was a laborious and costly process she believes should be streamlined in case of medical need.

Her health has steadily declined, to the point where she has now lost most of what she had, and is living on SSDI. She has a service dog who can sense when she is going to have seizures, providing her with safety, piece of mind, and companionship. The costs of the service animal are covered by SSDI.

Jane finds living on disability and food stamps humiliating and demoralizing. She has come to terms with her disease, but it is doubtful she will ever come to terms with how she is treated, whether it is at the grocery store or the doctor’s office. Because here disability is invisible, people assume she is gaming the system, and treat her accordingly. She often has to defend her right to use a service animal; people see only a woman with a dog, not a disabled person with a lifesaving service companion.

Despite all the setbacks in her life, though, Jane has found ways to stay busy, volunteering a considerable number of hours every week at food banks, homeless shelters, and soup kitchens, just as she did when she was affluent. Though she is frustrated by the fraud and abuse she sees every day, she continues to volunteer because it inspires her to get up and out of the house, and she feels good when she helps those who are legitimately in need.

This attitude, and approach, to charity, I found most pronounced in the South, where I kept meeting people who were very active in their charitable giving, be it in their churches, their schools, or in non-profits serving various causes. Churches especially  do a remarkable job of coordinating charitable activities, including providing food, shelter, housing and social services.

Part of this journey has included the inevitable discussions about how to replace the welfare ‘state’. Some argue that the poor, mothers and children, and the disabled, will fall in to abject poverty, but having seen the vast network of private charity at work nationwide, I dispute that notion.

After all, when welfare appeared on the scene, replacing private charity with government-provided care, charity didn’t disappear. I wonder what would happen if welfare programs were reduced dramatically and communities returned to taking care of their own. Certainly the likes of Jane lead me to believe Americans would pitch in and take care of each other, regardless of their status in life.