The Social Security Administration (SSA) approved disability benefits for hundreds of Puerto Ricans because they do not speak English, despite the fact that Puerto Rico is a predominantly Spanish-speaking territory.
According to a new audit by the Office of Inspector General (OIG), the agency is misapplying rules that are intended to provide financial assistance to individuals who are illiterate or cannot speak English in the United States. Under the rules, Puerto Ricans are allowed to receive disability benefits for their inability to speak English as well.
"We found the Agency did not make exceptions regarding the English-language grid rules for claimants who reside in Puerto Rico, even though Spanish is the predominant language spoken in the local economy," the OIG said.
The audit said a person applying for disability in Puerto Rico who cannot speak English "may increase his/her likelihood of receiving disability benefits."
The agency does not currently have a system in place to keep track of the number of beneficiaries who receive disability insurance for not being able to speak English.
However, the OIG was able to identify 218 cases between 2011 and 2013 where Puerto Ricans were awarded disability due to "an inability to communicate in English." Furthermore, 4 percent of disability hearings in Puerto Rico involved looking at the individual’s ability to speak, read, write, and understand English.
Though 95 percent of Puerto Ricans speak Spanish at home, according to the rules a Spanish-speaking nurse in Puerto Rico would be considered "unskilled," the OIG said.
The SSA told the OIG that the rules are applied one-size-fits-all.
"SSA managers at various disability decision levels stated Social Security is a national program, and the grids must be applied to the national economy, regardless of local conditions," the audit said.
The SSA takes into account an individual’s education level when considering awarding disability benefits if they do not qualify for medical reasons. Part of the education requirement involves looking at a person’s ability to speak English, to determine whether it limits his ability to find a job.
Last year Sen. Jeff Sessions (R., Ala.) raised concerns that the Obama administration was broadly applying the education rule under the Social Security Act to allow individuals to receive disability payments solely because they cannot speak English.
He noted that the Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) rolls swelled 230 percent between 2000 and 2010, while the U.S. population only grew 9.7 percent.
Former SSA judges have also testified that individuals have been approved for disability in the United States without having to prove they cannot speak English.
The hundreds of Puerto Ricans noted in the OIG’s report have received disability insurance despite a 1987 U.S. District Court ruling that appears to contradict the SSA’s policy. Benefits were denied on the grounds that "it is the ability to communicate in Spanish, not English, that is vocationally important in Puerto Rico."
"It should be noted, however, that the court explicitly declined to apply this rationale outside of this one case," the OIG said.
The SSA agreed with the OIG’s recommendations to figure out how many individuals have been "awarded disability based on their inability to communicate in English," and to "evaluate the appropriateness" of applying the English-speaking rules to Puerto Rico.
The SSA is currently gathering information for a proposed regulation that "could lead to changes" to the English-speaking rule, the agency said.
"Specifically, we are soliciting public comments and supporting research on how the inability to communicate in English affects an individual's ability to adjust to other work that exists in the national economy," the SSA said.