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As Trump tries to cut disability benefits, a different way to think about people who receive them

Michael Bischoff

Donald Trump has been talking about me this week, as one of the people who are dependent on the government for disability benefits and health care, when I could be working. It is true that there are strange incentives to avoid work once you are on disability. I share the concern that society needs the contributions of people who are receiving disability and other government benefits. I have a suggestion for moving toward that.

My diagnosis, Glioblastoma, an aggressive brain cancer, qualifies with Social Security for “compassionate allowance,” a set of medical conditions that are so severe that they get approved easily and quickly for disability benefits. When I was first diagnosed, the wise and wonderful social worker in my oncologist’s office encouraged me to apply for disability right away and to not overthink it. Her encouragement helped me immediately and completely let go of all the paid work I was doing. That was painful, but I’m grateful for how it helped me focus on healing and on new ways of contributing that became possible.

‘Released Friends’

There is a Quaker tradition called “released Friends,” where a faith community identifies some of its members who are called to do certain work that express the values of the community, but isn’t likely to lead to paid work. The faith community provides practical and financial support to these members to release them from some of the normal pressures of paid work and other obligations, so they are free to pursue the work they are called to. For instance, one Quaker has a gift for massage and bodywork that releases pain following trauma. He receives gifts that allow him to offer these services to people who most need them, even if they can’t pay for them.

I propose that we think of people who receive disability benefits as released friends, people who are released from the normal world of paid work, with the expectation that they will then contribute creatively, socially, spiritually, and culturally to society in powerful ways.

Last night I facilitated a gathering where two people who have both lost loved ones told stories of what loss and healing has meant in their lives. No one paid me. I didn’t want to charge anyone. I didn’t apply for any grants. I’m grateful to be released, by taxpayers and generous friends, to do that work. My diagnosis with a terminal illness has opened the door to a freedom and responsibility to contribute in new ways.

In order to utilize the contributions of those of us with disabilities, we all have the opportunity to recognize and receive the gifts of those on the margins of the world of paid work.

This week I’m grateful for Pat, Tim, Annie, Jayson, Ali, and Louise – who all work at organizations that serve people with illnesses, but they have each seen me as more than a patient – as someone who can be a partner who contributes and creates with them. I’m sure that I have more vitality and wellness because of how each of those people saw new capacities and purposes in me.

Unique insights and contributions

Those on the margins of paid work have unique insights, contributions, and abilities that people in the mainstream of society need. For instance, I think my experience with an aggressive cancer allows me an empathy for others in that situation that can’t be taught in medical school. I hope that translates to empathy for people in other risky situations too.

Since we all have a terminal prognosis, we’ll all eventually be released into the freedom at the margins of the work world. Some of us who are ill, young, or old just have a head start.

How can we release all of us, so we trust our basic needs will be met, while encouraging our creative, entrepreneurial and altruistic contributions?

I dream about the day when there is a guaranteed, basic income for everyone on the planet – combined with an unleashing of an entrepreneurial spirit for the common good. I look forward to more experiments with you as we move toward this future. 

Michael Bischoff lives in Minneapolis with his wife and two kids. He was diagnosed with brain cancer in 2015. He bikes, sits next to the river, and looks for ways to be useful. 


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Comments (5)

  1. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 05/26/2017 - 09:06 am.

    So true–we all need more “compassionate allowance”–the mark of an advanced society that recognizes that all of humanity is worthy.

    All that is gold does not glitter,
    Not all those who wander are lost;
    The old that is strong does not wither,
    Deep roots are not reached by the frost.
    From the ashes a fire shall be woken,
    A light from the shadows shall spring;
    Renewed shall be blade that was broken,
    The crownless again shall be king.

    (JRR Tolkien)

  2. Submitted by Ray Lewis on 05/26/2017 - 11:41 am.

    Thank you Michael!

    I appreciate your sharing the Quaker “released friends” tradition. “Those on the margins of paid work have unique insights, contributions, and abilities that people in the mainstream of society need.”

    Your work and writings also invoke a new interpretation of JFK inaugural challenge of: “Ask not what your country can do for you, but rather what you can do for your country”.

    How can we ask people to contribute their best talents and abilities when the free market may not recognize the intrinsic social value of what they can offer? What does society offer to support basic human rights in return?

    Godspeed on your journey!

  3. Submitted by Susan Maricle on 05/27/2017 - 08:37 pm.

    Everyone has something to offer

    I feel sorry for people who feel that life is so bleak, that their lives can’t be enriched by others. I live near a state-owned wetland and I visit it every day to pick up litter. By doing so, other people and their pets are freed from the danger of stepping on broken glass. Birds don’t get trapped by tangled fishing line. This daily activity is something I couldn’t do when I was working. Now that I’m on disability, it’s a small way of giving back. Not to mention how the local economy is strengthened by disability dollars. I sincerely hope that Trump re-thinks this budget cut.

  4. Submitted by Julie Zeidel on 05/27/2017 - 10:01 pm.


    Thank you for this! I can’t hold a desk job anymore, or work full time, but I try to make a contribution with my musical skills… not profitable! But I hope it’s uplifting for others.., also it is true if I didn’t get benefits I wouldn’t be buying stuff… it took my 5 years to get benefits for my fibromyalgia, and I didn’t buy myself so much as a candy bar during that time. So. Eliminating disability benefits would severely restrict economic growth

  5. Submitted by Susan Maricle on 06/01/2017 - 09:03 pm.

    Lobbying for the disabled

    Five years, wow — I admire your fortitude. I couldn’t have handled it with my anxiety disorder. So I went through a Minnesota-based company, Disability Specialist, which handled the paperwork and appeals if needed. It was a tough decision for me to make, as the company takes 25% of your back payment up to a certain amount. But it was worth it. My disability was approved in six months — I had a good start on my documentation, though.

    Our individual voices might not carry far, but disability-related companies would make excellent advocates to lobby for the disabled.

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