In this commentary, Whitney Lee reflects on the judgment she was raised to hold toward recipients of government benefits and how that contributed to feelings of shame in seeking financial support.
This commentary is part of the Voices of Disability Economic Justice Project, a partnership with TCF’s Disability Economic Justice Collaborative. Voices of Disability Economic Justice showcases disabled writers’ first-person perspectives on the economic issues that matter most to them.
Content note: this piece mentions suicide. If you or someone you know are in need of support, please consider the following resources:
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255
En Español: 1-888-628-9454
For people who are deaf/hard-of-hearing: 1-800-799-4889
Crisis Text Line: Text HOME to 741741
I was raised by a family and within a community that shamed recipients of government benefits such as Supplemental Security Income (SSI), Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI), and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). For a long time, I believed the frequently touted myths that welfare recipients are lazy or committing fraud. It wasn’t just strangers who my family targeted with these beliefs. An uncle with chronic fatigue syndrome was often the point of ridicule. His invisible disability wasn’t considered a valid enough reason to receive welfare.
Because of this, when I was diagnosed with anxiety and autism, I worried about my future. I wanted to destigmatize autism, so I thought that by camouflaging, refusing to ask for accommodations, and going to university in preparation to work full time, I would find my path forward. I believed that if I used any government services, I would actually be contributing to further stigmatizing neurodivergent people.
In 2016, I felt the first signs that a storm of health problems was about to wreak havoc on my body. An increase in fatigue, joint pain, and a growing list of unusual allergies halted my college progress. I cut back on classes, and I was in the process of switching to a more doable capstone project. Concerned family members suggested I should start the application process for welfare. During this time, I began to rethink many of the views I was raised to hold, but the 2016 election and the onslaught of welfare slander on social media contributed to my growing fears and exacerbated my existing mental health issues.
In 2017, I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia, which was only the beginning of the litany of health problems that were to follow. I was too sick to continue with my college education or work a traditional job. Thoughts ran rampant through my mind. While my family felt I deserved access to welfare, I knew they would feel differently if I wasn’t related to them. Their reassuring words meant nothing when I knew that they openly supported policies that harmed those using government services. Blood was the only thing separating me from those they criticized. I was invisibly disabled. On the outside, I fit the description of lazy, entitled, and leeching off the system.
I was ashamed of going through life as a “welfare queen”—a derogatory term for people receiving government benefits—knowing my family would hate what I had become. I knew I was having a severe mental health crisis on top of my physical one, but I didn’t know how to ask for help, especially when most of the people in the state I live in were in favor of limiting or getting rid of government benefits. In a moment of crisis, I thought it would be better to be dead than on welfare. I survived a suicide attempt and lingering suicidal ideation.
From the ashes of my shame an angry phoenix erupted. Acceptance was the first and most crucial step in my battle against bureaucratic systems. With that acceptance came rage. I hated the shame I experienced. I needed to do something. I committed what spare energy I had to disability studies and disability justice activism. The most important thing I learned was how diverse, fluctuating, and dynamic disability is. I had been taught to believe that people fake being disabled to abuse the system. This is a myth. Remember: many disabilities are not apparent, so it’s not necessarily possible to tell if someone is disabled.
Ultimately, getting on SNAP and Medicaid were relatively easy processes for me, but my fight for SSI is still ongoing. When I worked with a lawyer, I was denied multiple times before facing a judge, only to be denied again. My case was dropped. I am on my second round of applying. I had the help of a specialist this time, and I am still waiting to hear back.
The application process was dehumanizing and triggered much of the earlier shame I felt about relying on government aid. The grief and anxiety I felt each time I had to turn in paperwork only exacerbated my chronic pain. Time and energy I could have spent on healing my body or contributing to my community was wasted by red tape and bigotry
When you shame those receiving government aid, you harm not only the people in your life who need support, but also yourself. Remember, disability is a marginalization that anyone can experience. Nearly all people become disabled as they age. We should all feel safe in the knowledge that support will be available to us if we need it.