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Greenfield Recorder – Community Legal Aid expands the Disability Benefits Project to Franklin County

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

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

Attorney Kathryn Madison recently joined Community Legal Aid after serving 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 because they are not physically presented in a courtroom.

“If you look at the Social Security rules, a lot of it is just based on (questions like) how long can you stand? How much can you lift? Can you lift more than 10 kilos? Can you use more than 20 kilos? But clearly there are a lot of different mental and physical health issues that just don’t fit into that box,” Madison explained. “It is often very challenging for people to help the judge understand what they are going through if they do not have the help of an attorney who knows the regulations and the framework that Social Security uses to assess these cases.”

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

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

“The amounts we are talking about are actually just enough for people to survive on. This income is absolutely critical for people living with life-altering disabilities and illnesses just to meet their basic needs for food, housing, etc.,” Madison said. “We work a lot on cases where Social Security claims they overpaid, and now they have to pay some of it back. These could simply be huge amounts that someone, even with a much higher income, would not be able to repay. We’re really just trying to make sure that all of our neighbors… get the benefits that they’re 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 has not yet been publicly announced – will allow them to handle the new cases expected from the expansion of the Disability Benefits Project . .

“There are a few of us here who were hired specifically with the plan to eventually move to the Greenfield office,” Madison said. “We already have space to meet there, we’re already taking business 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 [email protected].