Does COVID-19 Count As A Legal Disability In Illinois?

Recently, we discussed the legal definition of “service animals” in Illinois — and how difficult it was to find financial aid even when one of these animals is needed to carry out simple day to day tasks. Government benefits are not provided lightly, which is probably part of the reason why certain requirements of being disabled are not overtly funded through Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI). But what about COVID-19, a disease that can leave victims recovering for months and months?

A social security disability means that a person has a physical or cognitive limitation that affects their ability to find paying work. SSDI therefore kicks in to help fund daily necessities like paying rent or buying food. The problem is that it can take months or years for an SSDI application to be approved — and even though the Social Security Administration provides backup upon approval, that doesn’t help you during the process. 

Nursing home director of social services for a care facility in Massachusetts, Jodee Pineau-Chaisson remembers the day she received a life-changing call: “I was asked to go onto the COVID-19 units to do FaceTime calls so they could say goodbye to their family members. I was very scared.”

Even though she was 55 years old herself and therefore at an increased risk of experiencing serious symptoms if she contracted the disease, she decided to accept the task. It wasn’t three full days before she was diagnosed with COVID-19. Now, she routinely considers what happened. Maybe she was sweating too much or not socially distancing the right way.

She was hospitalized twice following the diagnosis, and took three months off of work. The Family and Medical Leave Act guaranteed that she was able to keep her job. 

Ten months later, Pineau-Chaisson is still experiencing serious symptoms of the disease. She explained, “Sometimes it can even be hard to walk up the stairs to my bedroom.” She suffered from memory loss and exhaustion.

And the scariest part? These symptoms can limit a person’s ability to work, but disability advocates still don’t have an answer as to whether or not COVID-19 “long-haulers” will qualify for SSDI.

Dr. Steven Martin for the UMass Medical School said, “If we end up with a million people with ongoing symptoms that are debilitating, that is a tremendous burden for each of those individuals, but also for our health care system and our society.”

Democrats already expect Republicans to fight any measures that would allow new additions to SSDI, which they see as an entitlement. U.S. Representative John Larson (D-Connecticut) said, “We know what’s coming. So, we have to make sure that we’re on top of this.”

Even though Pineau-Chaisson isn’t sure what the outcome will be, she decided to see a neurologist to facilitate an application for SSDI. Most applicants who file for an application are denied. Even those who eventually get in are denied more than once on the journey there.

Disability attorney Linda Landry said, “I do think it’s still an open question. It’s still a little iffy about whether [long-haulers] will be able to qualify.”

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