A hat tip to Judge David Langham, whose blog on the topic (republished on our site here) tipped me off to this story this morning. An insurance company covering the NFL has filed a lawsuit against former Tampa Bay Buccaneer Brad Culpepper alleging fraud from a California injury suit settled in 2011. Culpepper took advantage of the California loophole now well known in our industry, where any player who was on a team's payroll and happened to be in California for a game could file for injury damages in the state. His suit settled for $175,000. He was declared 89 percent disabled.

Today Culpepper is a personal injury attorney, and was a lead plaintiff in the NFL brain injury suit resulting in a tentative $765 million settlement.

The lawsuit filed against him is the result of his activities after his personal suit was settled. The company is alleging fraud because Culpepper has since apparently earned a Black Belt in Mixed Martial Arts. Videos of Culpepper and his wife, Monica, “were posted on YouTube and photos ran in the Tampa Bay Times.” Also, last year, Culpepper was chosen to be a contestant on the CBS show Survivor, where, the insurer alleges, the physical demands of competition belie the disability claimed in his suit.

For his part, Culpepper defends his actions, citing multiple surgeries and continuous pain. The key for me, however, is in a statement made by Culpeppers attorney, Scott Shutzman. He is quoted as saying, “There’s nothing that I’ve seen that says an 89 percent disability rating says you can’t be on a TV show, or do an MMA workout”.

Right. And I agree. Therefore, it is logical to assume by extension that there is nothing that says someone with an 89 percent disability shouldn’t get off SSDI and get a job. Thanks Brad. Those of us who are proponents of ending the “disability mindset” in this nation appreciate your support.

I will pause for a moment for the inevitable slings and arrows to be cast my way for that statement…..

The problem here of course is that disability is a legal and emotional concept based on a physical or mental impairment. The two are not the same, and are not always even related. However, both our society and legal system continually blur the lines and conflate the two as a single entity. Culpepper has an impairment. He works through pain on a daily basis. However, the legal system assigned him a “disability” level, along with the stigma of inability that comes with such a designation. People willingly accept that because there is often cash attached to the designation. It is how our system works.

And since Culpepper is a millionaire who lives a comfortable life in a bay front mansion, the stigma does not impact him like it would a blue collar worker with limited skill sets. Sadly for many, however, such a designation is a sentence to the enslavement of disability dependency and the end of the road for a formerly productive life.

Impairment is a physical condition. In my opinion, “disability” results from how a person chooses to deal with that impairment. I’ve written before about a woman in our office who was once hit by a bus while delivering a package for her employer (who, by the way, yelled at her for getting blood on the envelope). She has pain every day from the back injury received in that accident. She has an impairment. She is not, however, disabled. Her choice, quite frankly.

There are many other examples of this. Bethany Hamilton, who lost an arm in a shark attack at the age of 13, yet went on to become a professional surfer. There is Warren MacDonald, who lost both legs in a rockslide, yet has continued climbing the world's highest mountains. Jessica Cox, a woman born with no arms who has become a licensed aviation pilot. And this guy, whose video available here is an outstanding testament to what can be done when the mind rejects the concept of disability.

Is Culpepper guilty of fraud? That is for the courts to decide. Personally I believe someone who can achieve a Black Belt level in the physically demanding activity of Mixed Martial Arts is not disabled in any form or format. They may indeed have impairment, but they are not disabled. The very definition of disabled, “a physical or mental condition that limits movements, senses, or activities”, defies the performance required for such an activity.

I should also point out that some people ultimately defeat “disability” with strong exercise and workout regimens (I again reference the video linked earlier in this article). There are studies that pain can be reduced both through aggressive physical and mental activities. Similar studies show that people who continue to work actually experience reduced levels of pain compared to those who remain sedentary at home.  Exercise is undervalued for its pain reducing benefits in our industry, and we all pay the price for that neglect.

Ultimately, it is our warped view of disability that contributes to cases such as this. Our legal system rewards claims of disability while paying scant attention to the individuals underlying impairment. So, if the courts ultimately declare Culpepper's claims of disability to be fraudulent, then we must also recognize that our system itself bears part of the blame. After all, we are in a world where there’s nothing “that says an 89 percent disability rating says you can’t be on a TV show, or do an MMA workout”.

If that is true, that a person who is found to be 89 percent “disabled” can become a Black Belt in Mixed Martial Arts, than there are likely a slew of impaired folks out there who can be newly considered “enabled” by that fact.

Our system needs to stop condemning them to our warped view of disability.

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