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Removing Barriers to Disability Insurance in America

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In the United States, current law imposes a lengthy waiting period on most people applying for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI). Except in specific cases, applicants face a five-month gap between the approval of their application and the time they receive their first payment. 

This waiting period is a relic from an earlier period in American history, based on outdated ideas about what it means to be disabled. In the 1970s, disability benefits were only available to people whose disability meant that they would never be able to return to work. The mandatory waiting period was instituted to ensure that only people who were “truly” disabled would qualify for assistance.

Since then, our mainstream understanding of disability has evolved and expanded to reflect a much wider diversity of experiences. Disabilities can come in all shapes and sizes; some are temporary, while others are permanent; some fluctuate in terms of their severity, while others stay the same. In light of all of this, in the 1980s, the definition of “disability” was modernized to allow a return to work. However, the waiting period stayed the same.

The five-month waiting period can have devastating consequences for SSDI applicants and their families. On average, it takes seven months for individuals to receive a decision about their application, which means that in total, people who are lucky enough to receive initial approval are still left without income for an entire year. This creates immense financial strain, sometimes culminating in bankruptcy.

Debiasing the system

TDL was approached by an international law firm who was looking to change the status quo. They were preparing a brief, to be brought in front of U.S. lawmakers, which proposed an alternative payment option: eliminate the waiting period, and adjust benefit payments very slightly to compensate. Under the new system, applicants would be able to choose which payment schedule they preferred, with no additional costs to the government or taxpayers. 

We worked for the law firm pro-bono, consulting on the behavioral design of the brief. At the end of the day, lawmakers are people too, and they are prone to the same cognitive biases as the rest of us. We drew from years of research on the ways that people think, process information, and make decisions, in order to ultimately make the document as effective and persuasive as possible. 

Reframing public policy

The principles of behavioral science can help us create materials that are better able to capture and hold people’s attention — and to get them to act on what they just learned. 

One example is the framing effect. Research shows that the way information is presented has a major impact on the way that people process it. Although it may sound like a small change, a simple change of framing could make a world of difference if it convinces a potential reader to pay attention. 

What’s in a name?

Figuring out the ideal framing for our client’s proposal was one of the main challenges we tackled during this project. We conducted a review of the published literature about attitudes towards social security benefits, then tested a wide range of potential names for the policy proposal in order to understand how readers would perceive them. We asked study participants to read a summary of the new proposed payment system, and then rate their agreement with a series of statements.

Our data showed just how impactful the right (or wrong) frame can be. Participants’ understandings of the policy varied significantly depending on how it was named: for example, 77% of participants who read about the “equitable distribution” plan believed that this policy was reflective of American values, while only 58% of participants who learned about the “accelerated” plan said the same.

Small changes, big impact

We don’t often think about the user experience when it comes to things like policy briefs. But the truth is, any materials that are trying to influence decision-making can benefit from a behavioral design perspective. By tapping the power of evidence-based behavior change techniques, organizations like our client can ensure that their work will truly make an impression on the people they need to get through to. 

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