Community Legal Aid expands Disability Benefits Project to Franklin County

By ANTHONY CAMMALLERI

Staff Writer

Published: 05-04-2024 4:01 PM

GREENFIELD — Community Legal Aid, a nonprofit that offers free civil legal support to elderly and low-income residents in western and central Massachusetts, has expanded its Disability Benefits Project into Franklin County, a change that coincides with the future opening of a new legal office downtown.

The nonprofit began its Disability Benefits Project in 1984. The program provides legal assistance to low-income elderly and disabled residents who have been wrongfully denied federal disability benefits or have had their benefits wrongfully terminated or reduced. While the project only moved into Franklin County weeks ago, it has served Berkshire, Hampden and Worcester counties for decades.

Attorney Kathryn Madison recently joined Community Legal Aid after working as a supervising attorney representing asylum seekers at Central American Legal Assistance in Brooklyn, New York. She said in the cases she has handled for the Disability Benefits Project, courts often overlook “invisible disabilities” and mental health issues, as they are not presented physically in a courtroom.

“If you look at the rules for Social Security, a lot of it is just based on [questions like] how long can you be standing up? How much can you lift? Can you lift more than 10 pounds? Can you use more than 20 pounds? But obviously, there’s a lot of different mental and physical health conditions that just don’t fit in that box,” Madison explained. “Often, it’s a big challenge for people to help the judge understand what they’re going through if they don’t have the help of an attorney who knows the regulations and the framework that Social Security uses to consider those cases.”

U.S. Census Bureau data collected from 2018 to 2022 shows that during those years, 16.5% of Greenfield residents under the age of 65 had a disability. Data collected over the same time period suggested that more than 24% of the city’s population was over the age of 65.

Madison said that in some cases reviewed by the Disability Benefits Project, Social Security will wrongfully terminate a disabled client’s benefits while his or her case is under review. Other times, she said Social Security has claimed clients received too much in disability benefits and they were forced to pay back large sums of money.

“The amounts that we’re talking about is really just enough for people to survive off of. This income is just absolutely crucial to people who are living with life-altering disabilities and illnesses, just to be able to meet their basic needs of food, housing, et cetera,” Madison said. “We work a lot on cases where Social Security is claiming that they were paid too much, and now they have to pay some back. These can be just huge amounts of money that someone even on a much higher income would not be able to pay back. We’re really just trying to make sure that all of our neighbors ... receive the benefits that they are entitled to under the law.”

Madison clarified that the nonprofit does not assist clients with the initial process of applying for benefits. Although Community Legal Aid has operated out of a satellite office in Greenfield for years, Madison said the new office — the location of which is not yet being announced publicly — will allow them to handle the new cases expected from the expansion of the Disability Benefits Project.

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“There’s a few of us here who had been hired specifically with the plan of moving up to the Greenfield office eventually,” Madison said. “We already have space there to meet, we are already taking cases in Greenfield, we’re ready to go.”

For more information about Community Legal Aid, visit communitylegal.org.

Anthony Cammalleri can be reached at 413-930-4429 or acammalleri@recorder.com.