Algorithmic guilt: using secret algorithms to kick people off welfare


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I’m pretty sure this eligibility determining agency is violating the Americans with Disabilities Act as well, since they’re not making an effort at all to provide and facilitate effective communication.


Does anyone follow the Americans with Disabilities Act?


They’re probably immune…rules are for individuals, not bureaucracies (public or corporate).


The city hall for my town is very accessible. We have a screen-reader friendly website (that I actually wrote when I was a teenager, and subsequent rewrites and updates to the web design have maintained that), there’s a ramp/elevator alternative to stairs in the city hall. The city hall has a TTY phone number as well as a video capable Skype number. Also, braille on all the signs. I have no idea whether the braille is accurate, but it’s there.

The front door also has a sign saying “please do not wear any strong scents in this facility”. The mayor gets migraines, so I’m guessing that was posted for her specifically.

I don’t know what else they do to facilitate effective communication, but all the interactions with my city hall seem to point toward them taking an interest in the people who live here, and a willingness for public participation.

So while I can’t say that my town is categorically compliant with ADA, it’s a lot better than most other towns I’ve spent time in.


I thought rules were the whole point of bureaucracies. And that’s why they never get stuff done in a timely or precise way. Because they set up lots of rules and have to strictly follow them.

What I mean is that the welfare agencies are probably immune from any sort of sanction or prosecution for violation of ADA rules. But god forbid a citizen not follow them to the letter, regardless of disability or hardship.


The example about welfare that is given has nothing to do with algorithms. It is simply discrimination against people with disabilities (whether legal or illegal I cannot tell), resulting from corner cutting while rolling out a new system. Such discrimination is age old and includes many examples, such as not providing blind or deaf people the ability to take exams (e.g., currently the gaokao for university admissions in China, or other exams in the US a few decades ago) or to apply for services. It does not require algorithms or computers.

So the title of the essay is misleading. Which is a pity because the basic problem is a very interesting one. There must be better examples.


The problem saying that rules and algorithms are bad is that the alternative is subjectivity. Do we really want decisions made “from the gut” as to whether somebody is “worthy” of benefits? The whole point of why bureaucracies have rules is because in the 19th century when they didn’t for the most part, things were bad, and people got benefits or government jobs based on who they knew and the like.

There’s that, and there’s the secrecy.


No, they are not exempt. See I quote:

ADA Title II: State and Local Government Activities

Title II covers all activities of State and local governments regardless of the government entity’s size or receipt of Federal funding. Title II requires that State and local governments give people with disabilities an equal opportunity to benefit from all of their programs, services, and activities (e.g. public education, employment, transportation, recreation, health care, social services, courts, voting, and town meetings).

State and local governments are required to follow specific architectural standards in the new construction and alteration of their buildings. They also must relocate programs or otherwise provide access in inaccessible older buildings, and communicate effectively with people who have hearing, vision, or speech disabilities. Public entities are not required to take actions that would result in undue financial and administrative burdens. They are required to make reasonable modifications to policies, practices, and procedures where necessary to avoid discrimination, unless they can demonstrate that doing so would fundamentally alter the nature of the service, program, or activity being provided.

Complaints of title II violations may be filed with the Department of Justice within 180 days of the date of discrimination. In certain situations, cases may be referred to a mediation program sponsored by the Department. The Department may bring a lawsuit where it has investigated a matter and has been unable to resolve violations. For more information, contact:

U.S. Department of Justice
Civil Rights Division
950 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W.
Disability Rights Section - NYAV
Washington, D.C. 20530

(800) 514-0301 (voice)
(800) 514-0383 (TTY)

Title II may also be enforced through private lawsuits in Federal court. It is not necessary to file a complaint with the Department of Justice (DOJ) or any other Federal agency, or to receive a “right-to-sue” letter, before going to court.

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But the laws aren’t actually enforced.

If I need to go to government offices, they aren’t accessible, public transportation isn’t accessible, health care isn’t accessible, etc. And this isn’t universal, but it is pretty common.

A few years ago, I went to an appointment, signed in, waited in agony, waited even longer, asked what the delay was, and was told that my appointment had been cancelled since I was late [I arrived an hour early] and I hadn’t signed in [I had], and could you please come back for more agony tomorrow. I can’t prove that my appointment had been cancelled because I was visibly disabled, but it is my strong suspicion.

[And now I get blasted with a couple minutes of infernal painbeeping]

More often, I get harassed for curling up in pain under sensory bombardment…


Unfortunately, there isn’t much of an enforcement system outside of the courts. On the other hand, a sternly worded letter from a lawyer often goes a long way. May I suggest looking at
or sending a message to some subset of the address, phone number, and TTY number in my previous post?

Sitting waiting in some bureaucrat’s office is a position of weakness, put a little fear into them.


Where would I begin?

First, these are all ongoing violations. Not new violations in the past 180 days.

Second, I can’t use phones or tty.

Third, these are often legally-mandated violations.

I think there are certain requirements for lighting, which lead to the use of cheap painfully-bright strobe lights, for warning signals, which lead to the use of incapacitating painfully-bright flashing lights and painfully-loud backup beepers, etc.

I did try to contact the public transportation people. They have signs everywhere saying that they are accessible, which isn’t true. They have phone numbers to contact them about accessibility, but last I checked, no accessible alternatives to phone numbers.

No, but they probably 1) just don’t care until or unless they get sued and 2) figure that someone on welfare is not going to be able to hire an attorney to sue the welfare department.

On the other hand, a lawyer who took this on pro bono would probably, if the excerpt in the BoingBoing article is correct, have an easy time winning and could get some good PR out of it.


Try sending an email or letter to your local TV station’s “public interest” department. They have easier access to government officials that could do something about the situation than you do, and sometimes a good old fashion round of bad PR will get the government’s PR team yelling about the problem in the ears of officials who can make changes.


You are right. It would be much easier and much more effective to just guarantee everyone a minimum livable income and housing. But that’s my no-good socialist side showing.


Might as well link to the eventual disposition of the Sheila Perdue case.

Purdue v Gargano, 2012

Nice, but even then, don’t you need some of those nasty bureaucratic rules to make sure Mr Silver Spoon living in a mansion isn’t trying to claim a subsidized housing unit for storing his excess wine collection or something? People do try to game any system.

I am sorry to hear you are having such difficulty with your disability and being recognized for it. My experience has been different, but I have a long documented history of mental illness. My father ordered the records from spending a year in my teens in two for-profit institutions. The paperwork was bound and about six inches high. Of course, I read all of it when I was about eighteen.

Since then in my twenties I have spent about a year locked away in various public places from my disability. I don’t think this is the time to get into my experiences in these places.

When I was 32 I had my first serious schizophrenic break, and the doctors told my mother and brother they didn’t think I would make it back. Fortunately I did, with psychiatric help and proper medication.

My first experience and pretty much only with SSDI was a grand total of fifteen minutes with a government psychologist. She basically said (paraphrasing of course) “You’re nuts. You get approved.”

My experience with the public mental health center here in Charlotte, NC, has been above good. Well, maybe not the food. And I could use an extra blanket.

I regularly see good staff, nurses and a doctor who cares. I am there once a month for a shot, Invega, that keeps me even.

I guess being a white male does have something to do with it, as well. I know I am lucky, and I enjoy a calm life.