You have finally found it — the secret to winning your claim for disability benefits:
Tell the best story.
If you aren’t familiar with how we do things here at Resolute Legal, then this is the first article you should read. It teaches you the first principle we apply when representing people in disability claims or appeals — to tell a better story than those who oppose you.
And if you’ve been reading our stuff for a while and managing your own claim successfully, you might still want to reread this article from time to time as a refresher. It’s that important.
This is the 10,000-foot view of the disability claim or appeal process when it’s done right.
No matter what type of disability claim you are dealing with, if you are applying for benefits or appealing a denial of benefits, you need to understand what causes the decision-maker to rule in your favour. Quite simply, they will rule in your favour when the story you present is more authentic and believable than the alternative negative stories presented about you.
Once you understand that storytelling is the key to success, you will know exactly how to maximize your chances of being approved for disability benefits, even after a denial.
If this sounds like something you want to know more about, keep reading!
Case Study: A Second Chance
Since attending law school in the early 2000s, I was aware of the concept that the best story wins; however, it wasn’t until 2014 that I came to truly appreciate its significance for disability claims and appeals.
Shortly after I founded Resolute Legal in 2013, I was approached by a woman who had recently lost her CPP disability claim at the Review Tribunal hearing. She had just received notice that she could have a second hearing before the then-newly-created Social Security Tribunal.
She was being given a second chance and she desperately wanted to win.
She had been represented by another lawyer at her last hearing but wanted me to represent her in this new hearing. I agreed to represent her and she was Resolute Legal’s first client for a CPP Disability appeal.
When I reviewed all of the claim documents, the evidence she had submitted, and her lawyer’s submissions to the Review Tribunal, I realized what I had gotten myself into.
There is no nice way to say it: her case was a mess.
She had a very compelling story, but it was nowhere to be found in the evidence and documents sent to the Review Tribunal. I told her we needed to change the entire narrative of her case — she was telling the wrong story. And even worse, she was doing things to support the negative narratives being spun against her.
I rewrote the legal submissions to the new Tribunal. We focused on telling a more persuasive story that emphasized all the things she had done to try and stay in the workforce. We gave direct answers to all of the negative statements made by Service Canada against her.
The result? Service Canada decided to approve her case in advance of the hearing.
Yes, you read that right. Service Canada had won at her last hearing but after getting our new legal submissions, they decided to approve her claim then and there instead of taking it to a new hearing.
The Best Story Wins
The best story wins has been a fundamental truth of legal advocacy since the beginnings of the legal profession in ancient Rome. Our legal system uses an adversarial model based on early Roman traditions. Under this model, two sides of a dispute present their side of the story to a decision-maker. The decision-maker rules in favour of one side by choosing the story they find most convincing.
You win in the adversarial system by telling the best story. This is why the training of the earliest lawyers focused exclusively on rhetoric — persuasive storytelling. This is why the best legal advocates of today continue to focus on storytelling above all else.
Storytelling does not mean lying or making things up; in fact, it’s just the opposite. Great storytelling must be authentic, credible, and take into account all of the positive and negative facts. If the decision-maker senses that you are making things up, bending the truth, or being dishonest in any way, then they are more likely to deny your claim.
So what makes a story good?
In the context of legal advocacy, good storytelling is crafting a narrative that is favoured by the decision-maker. It is a story and collection of legal arguments focused on the decision-maker and what they would find convincing, believable, and authentic.
At the end of the day, a story is good if it convinces the decision-maker to choose it over the competing story.
Storytelling in Disability Claims
Disability claims, by and large, use the adversarial system. When deciding your claim, the decision-maker is presented with two competing narratives: the one you tell and the one from the disability benefits provider. Your narrative is about why the claim should be approved and their narrative is about why it should be denied.
If you hadn’t considered the disability claim or appeal process to be an exercise in storytelling, you are certainly not alone. In fact, one of the biggest mistakes we see is that people prepare their applications and appeals without really thinking about the story they want to tell.
The story you are telling about yourself competes with two other negative stories being told about you.
First, you are competing against the negative story told by the disability benefits provider. They will present facts and evidence that show you do not qualify for disability benefits.
Second, in many cases, you will be competing against a negative story the decision-maker is telling themselves about you. This negative story can be conscious or subconscious; it is based on the deep-rooted negative stereotype of the disability cheat and something called confirmation bias.
The Disability Cheat Stereotype
Before you start looking into your story, you need to understand how negative stereotypes and confirmation bias can make you look like a disability cheat — even if you aren’t one.
A negative stereotype is a simple but unfair image attached to a social group and its members. Disability claimants have to fight a powerful negative stereotype: the disability cheat. Disability cheats lie or cover up to take advantage of the system. They blame others for their problems, think they know more than anyone else, and don’t try to go back to work or get better.
Of course, you’ll rarely meet such a person in real life. You might know people who say they know a disability cheat, but if you dig a little deeper you’ll probably find out they don’t know the person at all.
If you live with a disability, you may have already encountered this stereotype from others. You may have even held these beliefs yourself, before your disability. Either way, you need to know that this negative stereotype may stand between you and your claim approval because of a second problem: confirmation bias.
A confirmation bias is something that we can all be guilty of if we are not careful. It is the way people look for anything to support their own beliefs and ignore anything that doesn’t. Nearly everyone does it, and we are often not aware we are doing it.
If the person deciding your claim believes in the disability cheat stereotype—and most people do—then any information in your claim that looks bad will seem to jump out while your good points sort of… fade away.
People who see things this way aren’t necessarily mean or malicious, just misguided. But, if anything in your claim makes you look like a disability cheat then you are telling a losing story, whether you intend to or not.
A common strategy for disability benefits providers is to take advantage of confirmation bias by presenting evidence and facts that show that you fit with the disability cheat stereotype. This is usually subtle or implied; they won’t usually outright accusing you of being a fraud. The goal is to convince the decision-maker that the disability cheat story is more believable than the story you are telling.
Telling Your Best Story
I hope you have learned how storytelling is critical to the success of your disability application or appeal. To tell the best story you must show how you are the opposite of a disability cheat. You must show that you are a hard worker, that you did everything possible to stay in the workforce, and that you have done all you can to get better. Your story must be supported by medical evidence and opinions that show you meet the criteria to qualify for disability benefits.
During your application or appeal, you’re telling a story no matter what. You may as well make it the best story you can.