Home Court Advantage

What's Your WheelchairI lived in Los Angeles for about five years. I went there initially for some special physical therapy post spinal cord injury, and ended up loving the area.  I quickly had a very full life there… I made friends, got a job I really liked, the weather was sublime almost every day and the five day a week physical therapy helped me get in shape.

If you move to another state with a disability and need state assistance, you have to apply for each program just as you did in the last state you lived in. Compared to New York, California had many more programs, especially concerning aide care, I qualified for.

I had used multiple government benefits since the day of my injury, so I was used to the structure and redundancy of the bureaucratic process. But in addition to having more programs to assist me than New York, California also had legal time limits on how long a person had to wait for a response regarding if they qualified for a program or not. This was a huge asset on the applicant’s part.

Since government programs always consist of a ton of paperwork for the application process, I research each program to see if I will qualify for it before I apply. The research takes less time than the application process itself and is much less aggravating.

I qualified for all the programs I applied for except one, and it was an important one. You can accept the government’s decision or you can file an appeal. After speaking with a lawyer who volunteers to advocate for those with disabilities, I filed for my appeal date.

With my lawyer in tow, I attended my first appeal hearing at the L.A. County Courthouse downtown and lost. I was speechless. And I was angry. I taken a day off work, made the pain in the neck trip downtown during lunchtime rush hour to give the state a chance to rectify it’s mistake, (so I naïvely thought), and lost.

I knew my lawyer by reputation… Everyone I spoke to regarding his credentials said how lucky I was to have him appointed to my case. He was smart, he cared and he knew the government benefits system for the state of California inside and out.

He said the reason I lost was because the government saw how many programs I was receiving and simply didn’t want to give me another. Although I had the right to file up to three appeals, the government was betting the odds, he said… That a disabled person would be incapable, too exhausted, too stupid to file another appeal. I almost felt sorry for them.

I lost my second appeal. Before applying for my third and final appeal, I researched my lawyer myself. Everything I have been told was spot on, and then some. Since it was my last appeal, he said we should try the state Supreme Court in Sacramento, California’s capital.

There were no guarantees they would hear my case, but the worst they could do was say no and then I would simply go back to another county appeal. We went for it, sending every ounce of evidence showing I qualified for this program. I was allowed to write a statement of my own, and in it I said I felt the state was withholding simply because it thought it could. They were not making their decision based on the laws, they were making them on their opinion.

They accepted us, and my hearing was in a little less than three weeks. But there was a catch. I had to pay all travel expenses for my lawyer and myself, and would only be reimbursed if I won. That meant three days off work on top of the first two I already had taken off, and two airline tickets, since my lawyer was a volunteer. I said no way.

I called everyone I could think of who may be able to help me. State representatives, social workers, every advocacy association in the state. I promised, not threatened, to write a letter to the L.A. Times, stating all I wished to do was keep my job and contribute to society. I was fed up with a bureaucratic system that doled out what it wanted to, when it wanted to at their whim.

I should back up for a moment. The program I was fighting to receive would contribute to the cost of having an assistant at work to help me with my needs throughout the day. The program allowed the assistant to drive you to work using your vehicle, stay with you throughout the work day and drive you home. They would basically act as my hands for me while I was at my office.

Without supplemental funds to pay a work assistant, I wouldn’t be able to work. The funds from the state were actually supposed to cover an assistant for a forty hour work week, but the pay rate was so low you had to supplement it to find someone to take the job.

I was three thousand miles away from home, learning how to live with a spinal cord injury, had an apartment, a job and a live-in aide. Although my foundation was helping me with expenses, funds were limited, and I needed to take advantage of every program I qualified for.

The state would not agree to fund my travel expenses. Instead, they would send a small court room to me. A Judge, court reporter, social worker and one additional court representative.

My lawyer read the notice about twenty times. He had never heard of a court room being sent to an individual. I guess I had squeaked my wheels enough.

My day in court came and I was suddenly nervous. I think I was worried all the squeaky wheeling had provoked the state government so much,  the real reason a court room was being sent to me was to revoke my benefits altogether. My lawyer assured me people get their benefits revoked for multiple reasons all the time. The government doesn’t send a court room to notify them, they send a letter.

I figured at the very least I would try to be as charming as I could be to the judge. Everyone was always telling me I was much more impressive in person than on the phone, so maybe I had found an opportunity for it to work to my advantage. A few smiles and a little eyelash batting couldn’t hurt at this point.

When the court room arrived, his honor was African-American and by my best guess, in his mid to late forties. Upon being introduced to him, I couldn’t make eye contact because his sunglasses were very, very dark.

As everyone got settled in my living room and beverages were offered, I wonder why his honor kept his sunglasses on. What kind of judge what is this? Was he going to keep them on the entire time?

The answer came to me before I finished the question inside my head. Yes, he would keep his glasses on because he was blind. Well, I thought, there goes my smiles and eyelash batting…out the window.

Just my luck. I appear before a blind judge when I am so desperate to qualify for this program I’m willing to try to charm him into giving it to me. It made me see how utterly ridiculous I was thinking.

We presented all of our evidence and I won my case in about fifteen minutes. Not only that, but they were refunding me for my days of work missed, including that day, because I should have qualified for the program the first time I applied.

I was so relieved, I had tears rolling down my face. After everyone left, my aide made me a nice stiff Martini and I sat on my pretty little balcony and celebrated. As I let my victory soak in, along with my martini, I thought how many times we hear it’s on the inside of the person what matters, not the outside. Or something along the lines of as outer beauty fades, we are left with what’s inside, so we better be made of good stuff!

I was glad I at least had enough sense to remind myself of these priceless life lessons. What’s really important is not how we look, it is the content of our moral character. Remember this, because you never know when you may find yourself in court in front of a blind judge.

Pocket

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