I spoke with Alaska Legal Services Corporation’s Eric Vang, and Pro Bono Net’s Katie Lam, who are collaborating on a project to apply technological solutions to Alaska’s Social Security Disability Application system. Their goal is to ensure that Alaskans applying for SSD have the best shot of being approved for the benefit by making sure their applications have all of the materials that they need. The development of ALSC’s project is supported by an LSC Technology Innovations Grant. With support from the Open Society Foundations, Pro Bono Net is collaborating with ALSC to conduct a community-centered research and design phase to develop, prototype and test the tool with local partners.

Eric has practiced law at Alaska Legal Services for nine years. He now focuses on technology projects, co-leads their health team, and is an experienced Social Security Disability attorney. Alaska Legal Services is a national leader in providing innovative legal support to low-income communities.

Katie joined Pro Bono Net in June 2019 as its Technology and Empowerment Fellow. As a Fellow, Katie leads the Legal Empowerment and Technology Initiative, a nation-wide cohort of civil justice communities using technology to enable legal empowerment. Prior to PBN, Katie worked as a business operations associate at a UX research startup called Validately and as an Open Data Youth Leadership Council coordinator for the Mayor’s Office of Data Analytics. 

In Alaska, applicants face the additional barriers of extreme weather, poor internet and phone connectivity, and Alaska’s sheer size.

Many SSD applications are rejected because of a lack of medical evidence or applicants not listing all of their disabling conditions. This is often caused by the application itself being incomplete. Eric and Katie hope to leverage legal technology to make filling out these applications easier and ensure that they are complete so that more Alaskans, and potentially people in other states, are able to get the disability benefits to which they are entitled.

Could you walk me through the goals of your project and how you hope to make filling out complete applications easier for both case managers and applicants?

Eric: As we currently envision our project, we’re focusing on “community navigators” such as clinical case managers or community health aides who are assisting their patients with the disability application process. Case managers we’ve interviewed have said that they know how important these benefits are to their patients wellbeing, but they don’t have access to clear instructions for what information needs to be gathered, what a complete application should include, or a way to track where their many clients are in the application process.

We’re hoping to systematize the application process by providing a roadmap to the case manager and their patient that will detail what tasks need to happen and why. We also hope to provide support systems that allow them to track task completion and even the complicated and detailed information that is often needed. For example, if I were to ask you, “where have you received medical services in the last 10 years and what are the dates of those services?” For most young folks, that wouldn’t be that hard, but for an applicant with multiple chronic conditions, each requiring regular treatment, that’s a really complicated list.

We’re exploring tools we can use to educate and empower the case manager to identify other supplemental forms or medical documents that could strengthen the application of a particular patient and also to know when they can stop preparing and submit an application with confidence.

Historically, designing legal technology platforms like this tends to center on lawyers. What is most important about centering case managers in this project?

Katie: For this project, we want to center the expertise and the on the ground knowledge of community navigators, and other social service providers who work directly with applicants and may not be legal experts, but because of the nature of the day-to-day work, they do get to know the law and need to know the law in order to support their clients. Leveraging the unique perspective and capabilities of community navigators is a critical piece of our legal empowerment approach. Case managers, community health aides, and other social service providers already help their communities understand and use the law. Our hope is that this project will further empower community navigators and make their jobs a little easier.

Eric: Alaska is both under connected and under lawyered. Alaska’s Second Judicial district contains about 30,000 people living in an area the size of Montana. The Alaska Bar Association reports that there are 24 active lawyers living there. So it is very easy for Alaskans to be isolated from the specific legal and systemic knowledge they need for something like a disability application.

For people who are further isolated by mental health issues, that problem is even more acute. Many disability applicants experience severe mental impairments and their case manager or community health aid is often one of the only people who knows how to effectively access, communicate, and engage with that individual.

Using technology to empower the person who already has that unique access is a far more effective and scalable way of helping disability applicants than trying to find a knowledgeable attorney or disability expert to meet with each applicant.

Could this project scale up to other parts of the country?

Katie:  It’s important that this tool meet the state specific needs of Alaskan disability applicants, first and foremost. Applying a co-design approach in combination with our legal empowerment strategy has allowed us to zero in on the precise concerns and opportunities that the Alaskan community faces and that our tool must address. However, one of the appeals of tackling Social Security Disability is the fact that it’s a federal benefits program. It would be incredible for the tool to scale to other states and support other processes.

Learn more about several of the co-methods Katie and Eric used for this project in Katie’s previous blog post, Key Takeaways from Running a Virtual Design Sprint, and their November 2020 Decolonizing Justice workshop, Tools and Tactics for Participatory Design.