Orange is the New Black is Dead Wrong About Disability

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Orange is the New Black is Dead Wrong About Disability

(Screenshot via Orange is the New Black/ Netflix)

SPOILER ALERT: This article discusses events within the first episode of Season 3.

Et tu, Orange is the New Black?

The Netflix drama is back with a third season, and if you’re like me, it monopolized the better part of the last two weekends. The show deserves credit for sparking dialogue and increasing awareness about mass incarceration in the U.S., particularly among people who hadn’t previously considered criminal justice reform to be their thing.

The show’s typically smart writing and masterful treatment of a serious and complex topic made the first episode all the more disappointing.


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One of the very first scenes of the third season is a flashback to the character Pennsatucky’s childhood. We watch as her mother forces her to chug an entire two-liter bottle of Mountain Dew. Pan right to the sign showing us that they’re at the Social Security Administration office. Then we hear Mom say, with a young Pennsatucky now bouncing off the walls behind her, “So I understand, Supplemental Security Income benefits for kids like mine are $314 a month, is that right?”

The implication is clear: Mom is attempting to simulate the symptoms of ADHD in her child in order to fraudulently obtain SSI benefits.

This scene caused me to have several flashbacks of my own. First, to the mid-1990s, when a flurry of media reports accused parents of “coaching” their children to “act disabled” in order to feign eligibility for SSI benefits. The “crazy checks” media frenzy, as it came to be known, spurred Congress to narrow the program’s eligibility rules, causing more than 100,000 children with disabilities to lose critically needed benefits. The media claims were later shown to be baseless, but the damage had already been done, and Congress had already legislated by anecdote.

I also flashed back to 2010, when media allegations accused parents of seeking psychotropic medications for their children in hopes of SSI eligibility. These claims were similarly debunked after multiple investigations. But again, the media allegations rang loudly in the halls of Congress, leading to hearings and yet more proposals to cut SSI.

My head swirling, I was next transported to 2012, when New York Times columnist Nick Kristof sparked yet another kids’ SSI media hubbub by accusing parents of pulling their kids out of literacy programs in order to obtain SSI benefits. Mr. Kristof’s claims that the program incents parents to keep their kids from learning to read were similarly unsupported by the facts—but that didn’t stop NPR from doubling down on his claims with their own (widely discredited) “reporting” just a few months later. Legislation that would kick young people with disabilities off of SSI if they miss school is now pending in Congress.

Each set of media allegations—as well as the disappointing OITNB scene—reflects a continued lack of understanding of mental impairments. They perpetuate the stereotype that if you have a visible physical impairment, you’re ‘truly disabled,’ but if you have an invisible mental disorder, your impairment is somehow less real, or less legitimate.

What’s more, each set of media attacks—as well as the OITNB scene—reflects vast ignorance about the SSI program, perpetuating the myth that it’s easy to get benefits. Getting hyped up on a caffeinated drink before you walk into the Social Security office may make for entertaining TV, but it won’t get you anything in real life.

SSI serves as a vital lifeline for families caring for children with disabilities. It makes it possible for families to care for their children with disabilities at home and in their communities, instead of in costly and isolating institutions. Only children with the most severe impairments and illnesses qualify for SSI. The majority of children who apply are denied, and fewer than 1 in 4 U.S. children with disabilities receive benefits.

Raising a child with a disability is extraordinarily expensive. Families caring for children with disabilities are more than twice as likely as other families with children to face material hardships such as homelessness, food insecurity, and utility shutoff. The financial support that SSI provides helps to offset some of the commonly incurred costs, including special therapies, diapers for older children, adaptive equipment, and transportation to doctors and specialists, many of which are not covered by insurance or have high copays. SSI benefits also replace a portion of lost income when a parent must stay home or reduce her hours to care for a child.

ADHD is a neurobiological disorder that affects 5 to 8 percent of school-age children.

But only the most severely impaired children are eligible for SSI. More than 75 percent of children with ADHD who apply for benefits are denied, and just 4 percent of U.S. children with ADHD receive SSI.

Moreover, qualifying for SSI on the basis of ADHD—or any other mental or physical impairment—requires extensive medical evidence from approved medical sources (including physicians and specialists) documenting the severe impairment as well as its resulting symptoms. A child’s impairment must result in marked and severe functional limitations and must be expected to last at least 12 months or to result in death.

In fairness to Orange is the New Black, the show is fiction. Unlike the media frenzies over the years, it didn’t claim to be reporting the facts. But, as with the latest season of House of Cards, which was infused with “real-world lies” about Social Security—it’s “sucking us dry”… “entitlements are bankrupting us”—the silver screen’s treatment of important public policy issues has a very real, and potentially destructive, impact. (Coincidentally or not, House of Cards is also produced by Netflix.)

Media portrayals that reinforce myths about mental disorders do us a significant disservice and contribute to the harmful denial of mental illness that persists even in the 21st century. Media portrayals that reinforce negative stereotypes about vital programs and the individuals helped by them are similarly dangerous, sowing the seeds for cuts that will make vulnerable people’s lives all the more difficult.

Rebecca Vallas

Rebecca Vallas is the Associate Director of the Poverty to Prosperity Program at the Center for American Progress.

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