Ch 12: Self Advocacy

How to Represent Yourself for Benefits

When people come to see me for help, they often show me a letter they’d submitted to an agency, requesting a benefit. The agency has declined to provide the benefit. The client feels frustrated, unheard, disregarded, and disillusioned. What didn’t work?

Following is a made-up example of the type of letter often submitted:

I have had not teeth for all these months and I’m getting hungry and am so sick of Ensure no one should have to eat that stuff. It’s not even real food. This is a disgrace. I deserve better, we all do. It’s not your fault, I know it’s our minister of finance that made these rules but it’s not working it doesn’t even make sense because it’s cheaper to give people teeth than forty years of Ensure. With teeth I could work, eat real food, and it would be nice to have recreation and be able to smile I don’t know why you would prevent that. This is a basic human right! I haven’t asked for hardly anything. You gave my neighbour $13,000 to remove mould from her house but you won’t pay $4k for my teeth replacement, the dentist already said he would do it. Why won’t you give this money? I’m a hard worker. You know that from my employment records. You can see them. I can even give you proof from the federal government, all I paid in. It was a lot. I should have kept some of it for my teeth, even though that’s not even legal but it should be because how can I pay for them now, and you won’t. I need the replacement teeth, I want to be able to smile and feel good and eat the food they give us at the food bank and soup kitchen, that’s all I ask. I’ve never cheated or stolen and now I’m desperate. Why won’t you help?

Notice the letter writer ends with, “Why won’t you help?” The heartbreaking thing is, the agency’s worker likely wants very much to! She is not permitted to, though, because the letter—while long, intelligent, passionate, reasonable, and detailed—does not address the eligibility rules for getting teeth.

A letter can present all the reasoning and desperation in the world, but if it does not state clearly that the writer meets the criteria, she cannot access a given benefit.

For example, in BC part of the law for a person receiving welfare is as follows:

Dentures may be provided…only to a person who has never worn dentures or whose dentures are more than 5 years old. The [general cost] limits…may be exceeded by an amount necessary to provide dentures…because of extractions made in the previous six months to relieve pain. [Bolds mine.]

On page 90 of Rising, I offer the following example letter that references the legislation and how the writer meets its stated criteria:

March 17, 2016

Dear [Agency],

On January 3rd, 2016, all my teeth were extracted as a result of severe pain. I am writing to request coverage for my first set of dentures.

Jim Doe

Notice it gives:

  • the date of extraction (because the legislation sets a time limit for the request)
  • the reason for extraction (because the legislation provides for severe pain)
  • confirmation that this would be the client’s first set of dentures (because the legislation allows the initial set as needed, versus after five years)

The second letter is far more likely to result in funding the first time, or successfully upon appeal.

Pages 89-95 of Rising offer additional tips for making an effective self-advocacy pitch. It suggests that when you’re requesting help, you:

  • do so in a letter
  • copy the relevant law or policy
  • note that you meet this, and how
  • provide proof if you have it
  • get and keep proof of submission

Leave out the emotion, the pleas, the anger, the justifications. Note the rules and how you meet them. Make it easy for the worker to see how you meet the rules, so she can say yes and still keep her job  🙂

Struggle with any of these steps? Ask an advocacy agency or a neighbour if they will help you. In the book, I offer many more tips to you or your support person for achieving success in challenging circumstances.

6 thoughts on “How to Represent Yourself for Benefits

  1. I love this!
    I absolutely love the clarity here.
    It transfers into every aspect of life.
    Clarity and concise communication are things I am working at, and seeing clear examples and reminders is so helpful.
    Thank you, Joon! 🌸


    1. Oh, thank you, Saskia! This was the post I’ve been most excited to make so far, and I wondered how it would land for people. I’m so passionate about how clear communication can change lives. Thanks so much for the feedback!


  2. Yes, please! As someone who has often worked on the receiving end of similar things, I’m thrilled when someone reads the rules, answers the questions that we need the answers for, and is concise. I want to provide that person the money if I can. And with auditing and standard rules, if I can’t justify cutting a cheque based on the info provided I typically would not.


  3. Joon, this is fantastic and so simple. I had a dear friend for many years who would get upset about something and send long, emotional emails like your first example to people with the power to help … but also without have the time or inclination to sort through pages and pages and still never come to any clear request or resolution.

    When I tried to coach her about it — be succinct, ask for specific things — she got mad at me and said she needed to be authentic. It always bummed me out, because it was like she was shooting herself in the foot.

    Your advice here is a good reminder to me, too, that when I’m starting to feel bogged down in ugggghhhh-ness, often the best thing to do is to ask for help in the simplest and clearest way I can.


    1. Oh, thank you, madge! Yes, I feel like if we can collectively spread the word on this one shift, clients and workers will be able to move through processes much more efficiently, and we’ll all be able to get on with the more complex tasks involved in creating social change.

      I’m glad your friend had someone offering encouragement and help, even if she chose not to accept it at the time. That’s important!


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