Navigating the bureaucracies of social security and other public benefits is both complex and intimidating. Legal jargon and procedural specifics present serious obstacles for those most in need – the elderly and the disabled. To ensure that their rights are protected and their needs met, the General Legal Services Unit at NYLAG recently established the Disability Advocacy Project (DAP), which helps this vulnerable population get the health care services they desperately need.

The project grew out of an initiative led by NYLAG attorney Kevin Kenneally, who began a few years ago to focus on Social Security Disability (SSD) and Social Security Income (SSI) cases. SSD and SSI provide basic income and health care benefits to those who cannot afford care, including children, adults and seniors with significant medical impairments, as well as those 65 or older who are not disabled.

Despite one’s eligibility for these programs, the odds are difficult to overcome: only 35% of initial SSD and SSI applicants are approved. And those who can afford the assistance of a private attorney loose 25% of their benefits retroactively to attorneys’ fees, a figure that can reach into the thousands.

Mr. Kenneally began to specialize in SSI and SSD issues and became the “go-to” expert within the organization, offering his advice and expertise to other NYLAG attorneys who represented clients with related issues. With the addition of two new paralegals who work solely on DAP related cases, NYLAG is now able to provide full, free representation to those who are incorrectly denied federallyfunded SSD or SSI benefits.

The reach and success of DAP has been affirmed by a dramatic increase in funding, which has enabled the project’s growth and will fund the further additions of a third paralegal and a full-time staff attorney. DAP currently receives over 20 new cases each month, all of which are taken at no cost to the client, and offers advice and recommendations on many more.

The case of Rick, a 16-year old who was denied SSI benefits, represents the necessity and impact of DAP. Rick endured nine hospitalizations and 15 emergency room visits between 2001 and 2007 for asthma attacks. After the first judge assigned to the case denied the claim, Mr. Keneally had the decision reversed based on judicial bias. Subsequently, Rick was found to be disabled and awarded back benefits of $17,000 in addition to ongoing monthly SSI.

“DAP provides access to highquality legal services for clients living near or below the poverty line that they otherwise could not afford,” said Michael Bittoni, a paralegal for the Project. He added, “The most rewarding aspect of my work is giving a voice to people with disabilities. My work with them shapes their words into stories that workers and judges can understand and respond to legally. This advocacy helps our clients feel that their individual rights have been protected even when they deal with a large, impersonal system.”

For more information about DAP, contact Kevin Kenneally at [email protected] or 212.613.5081.