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Social Security Change in Notice Policy Could Affect Visually Impaired

Renewed opt-in needed for many to keep getting mailed notices in formats like large print and braille

Blind woman reading document through magnifying glass while sitting next to open laptop at home

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En español | Many of the hundreds of thousands of Americans with vision loss who receive specially formatted notices from the Social Security Administration (SSA) will stop getting them this summer unless they act now to continue this service.

For more than a decade, the SSA has offered visually impaired beneficiaries special notice options (SNO) to receive communications in formats such as large print, braille and CD. Even those who chose, via online My Social Security accounts, to no longer get printed letters from the SSA could still receive special notices in their chosen format, along with an online message.

Starting Aug. 14, these Americans will get only the online version of SSA messages unless they or someone assisting them logs in to their account and opts in for paper mailings. Those who do so will continue receiving special notices in their preferred format as well as online notices in the Message Center of their My Social Security account.

How to Keep Your SNO

If you're a Social Security beneficiary with vision loss, you can take these steps to keep your special notice option intact:

  1. Log in to your My Social Security account.
  2. Go to Preferences and click on the button to edit Communication Preferences.
  3. Set your communication preference to “Send a paper copy and an online copy.”

Your special notice will continue to be provided in the format you previously selected, along with online notices via the My Social Security Message Center.

The SSA says the change reflects how most My Social Security users want to receive official communication.

"The agency began planning for this initiative several years ago, as it aligns with our agency strategic plan as well as customer preference,” SSA spokeswoman Nicole Tiggemann explained in an email.

"This change does have the potential to save some money for the agency, but we expect minimal savings in the short term,” she said. “The focus is on customizable service-delivery options."


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Experts: Change is ‘concerning'

About a half million people use special notice options, according to data from the SSA. More than 388,000 do so in large print. Nearly 47,000 have opted for a phone call, about 27,500 for a certified letter, 23,000 for a data or audio CD, and about 11,700 for braille communications.

Tiggemann said the SSA sent messages to My Social Security users on June 14 “that explained that we will no longer provide SNO format notices for notices available online to our customers who opted out of paper notices.” The agency followed up two weeks later, she said, with “certified mail notices, in the SNO format,” to make sure affected recipients got the word.

Some people with vision loss can use assistive technology products such as specialized magnifiers, electronic braille notetakers and screen-reading software. Others may rely on friends or family to help them create and use a My Social Security account.

Even so, requiring the visually impaired to take steps online to avoid being dropped from the SNO list is “a little concerning,” says Phil Armour, a labor economist who studies Social Security and disability insurance.

"As the pandemic has shown, not everybody has internet or is internet savvy or has reliable internet,” says Armour, a professor of policy analysis at Pardee RAND Graduate School in Santa Monica, California.

Clark Rachfal, director of advocacy and governmental affairs at the Alexandria, Virginia–based American Council of the Blind, also calls the shift “concerning” and potentially “confusing” for visually impaired beneficiaries.

"As individuals age they are more likely to develop a disability, including age-related vision loss,” he says. “This change has the potential as something to impact millions of Americans.”

The nonprofit American Foundation for the Blind estimates that about 32 million American adults, including 9.2 million age 65 or older, experience significant vision loss, based on 2018 data from the National Center for Health Statistics.

How to Set Up Special Notices

If you do not get special notices and want to start, log in to your My Social Security account and open the Preferences page. Click the Request a Special Notice Option link in the blue information box at the bottom of the page and choose one of these communication methods:

  • Standard print notice by first-class mail
  • Standard print notice by certified mail
  • Standard print notice by first-class mail, with a follow-up phone call
  • Standard print and braille notices by first-class mail
  • Standard print and large-print (18-point font) notices by first-class mail
  • Standard print notice and Microsoft Word file of text on a data CD, by first-class mail
  • Standard print notice and voice recording of the text on audio CD, by first-class mail

Lawsuit expanded options

The American Council for the Blind filed a class-action suit against the SSA in 2005, charging that the agency was denying visually impaired people equal access to benefits and programs by failing to provide them with broader communication options.

"Someone would receive in standard small print a letter from Social Security saying they had 30 days to respond but be unable to read or complete the information request and their benefits would be terminated,” Rachfal said.

Before that case, notice options for visually impaired beneficiaries included certified and first-class mail and phone calls. After a federal judge ruled for the plaintiffs in 2009, the SSA added specialized formats such as large print, braille and CDs.

Noting the cost savings from potentially reducing SNO mailings, Rachfal says it is “laudable to eliminate waste,” but the SSA “should do it in a manner that does not diminish service."

Armour says he's “seen movements in the opposite direction, where [government] agencies have been trying to think about ways of getting the news out.” He cites Internal Revenue Service efforts to notify taxpayers who lack health insurance about Affordable Care Act coverage options.

The SSA has conducted similarly targeted outreach in other areas. For example, since late last year the agency has been sending notices to those receiving Social Security benefits who may also qualify for Supplemental Security Income, an SSA-administered program that provides cash assistance to older, disabled and blind people with low income.

"Making it more difficult to find out about and apply for disability benefits really does screen out people,” Armour says. “It tends to disproportionately screen out those most likely to qualify for benefits."

Sharon Jayson is a contributing writer who covers health care and aging. She previously worked for USA Today and the Austin (Texas) American-Statesman and her work also has appeared in The Washington Post, Time magazine and Kaiser Health News.

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