Social Security Considers Puerto Ricans Living in Spanish-Speaking Puerto Rico “Disabled” if they don’t Speak English

Monday, April 13, 2015
(graphic: Michael A. Velez Silva)

Although Puerto Rico is an American territory, the predominant language there is Spanish. This fact appears to have been lost on the Social Security Administration (SSA), which has declared some Puerto Ricans who don’t speak English to be disabled for the purpose of receiving government payments.


A report (pdf) by the SSA’s inspector general found 218 cases in Puerto Rico from 2011 to 2013 in which disability status had been given to those because of their limited English skills. Which, according to SSA guidelines, expressed on a grid containing age, language skills and other factors, might make sense.


“Since the ability to speak, read and understand English is generally learned or increased at school, we may consider this an educational factor,” the guidelines read. “Because English is the dominant language of the country, it may be difficult for someone who doesn’t speak and understand English to do a job, regardless of the amount of education the person may have in another language. Therefore, we consider a person’s ability to communicate in English when we evaluate what work, if any, he or she can do. It generally doesn’t matter what other language a person may be fluent in.”


Except that English is far from the dominant language of Puerto Rico. The IG report points out “a U.S. District Court’s earlier judgment, upheld by a U.S. Court of Appeals, found that, for the most part, it is the ability to communicate in Spanish, not English, that is vocationally important in Puerto Rico.”


The report recommended, “SSA could consider modifying the English-language grid rules for the national program, taking into consideration the unique circumstances such as those found in Puerto Rico. This would help ensure only disabled individuals collect SSA disability benefits.”

-Steve Straehley


To Learn More:

Qualifying for Disability Benefits in Puerto Rico Based on an Inability to Speak English (Inspector General, Social Security Administration) (pdf)

Puerto Ricans Who Can’t Speak English Qualify as Disabled for Social Security (by Josh Hicks, Washington Post)


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