Disability Hearing: How to Prove You Can’t Work When Applying for Disability Benefits

by Laura Schaefer   ·  3 months ago  
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If you’re too disabled to keep working full-time, you want to make sure you understand the SSA’s guidelines. Sufficiently being able to prove you can’t work due to disability will greatly improve your claim’s chances for approval.

First, let’s look at the good news. In 2020, 648,121 disabled people got approved for Social Security disability benefits. Imagine how relieved they felt when they heard they’d would soon start collecting those checks!

Now, let’s take a moment to review the not-so-great news. More than 1.8 million people (disabled or not) applied for SSD benefits in 2020. That means almost 1.2 million received denial letters from the Social Security Administration. Just 35% of that year’s applicants met the guidelines for Social Security disability. The SSA approves about 1 in every 5 first-time claimants for benefits, and nearly all applied through a disability lawyer.

Here are some tips for how to prove you can’t work due to a disability.

How Does the SSA Determine Whether You Can Continue Working?

The Social Security Administration (SSA) determines whether an individual can continue working through a process known as a “disability evaluation.” This evaluation involves several steps:

  1. Severity of Impairment: The SSA evaluates whether the individual’s medical condition(s) meet the criteria of one of the disabling conditions listed in the SSA’s impairment listing manual, also known as the “Blue Book.” If the condition is severe enough to meet or equal a listing, the individual is considered disabled.
  2. Ability to Work: If the individual’s condition does not meet or equal a listing, the SSA assesses their ability to perform substantial gainful activity (SGA). SGA refers to the ability to engage in significant, full-time work activity. If an individual’s earnings exceed a certain threshold set by the SSA (which may vary each year), they are generally considered to be engaged in SGA and may be ineligible for disability benefits.
  3. Residual Functional Capacity (RFC): If an individual’s impairment(s) do not meet or equal a listing and they are not engaging in SGA, the SSA assesses their RFC. RFC is an evaluation of the individual’s physical and mental abilities to perform work-related activities despite their impairments. The SSA considers factors such as the individual’s ability to stand, walk, lift, carry, and concentrate.
  4. Past Relevant Work: The SSA evaluates whether the individual can perform any of their past relevant work. Past relevant work is work that the individual has done in the past 15 years, which lasted long enough for them to learn how to do it and was substantial gainful activity.
  5. Other Work: If the individual cannot perform their past relevant work, the SSA evaluates whether they can adjust to other work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy, considering their age, education, work experience, and RFC.

Throughout this process, the SSA may consider medical evidence provided by the individual’s healthcare providers, as well as information about the individual’s work history and daily activities. The determination is made based on the individual’s unique circumstances and the specific criteria outlined by the SSA’s regulations and guidelines.

What is Functionality, and Why Does it Matter?

Yes, a doctor’s diagnosis (especially one that says you’re disabled) is key for claim approval. But there is something else to keep in mind as well. Your claim could be denied if your functionality at work hasn’t changed — and we mean specifically due to your disability. Let’s put this another way: The SSA needs to know how well you function at work each day (or not).

To approve your claim, the SSA needs to know you cannot function at work for 40 hours a week. What’s more, you need to show them evidence that your disability stops you from performing your job duties as expected. Also, the agency needs to know that your doctor doesn’t expect your condition to improve within 12 months. Lastly, you must show that you cannot work in a similar job with reasonable accommodations.

The Role of a Vocational Expert in Disability Hearings

What is a Vocational Expert?

Vocational Experts, or VEs, are professionals who provide disability judges with information about the requirements and skill levels associated with different job roles and occupational titles. Using a tool known as the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (DOT), which lists the types of job skills learned for various job positions; the testimony you give at your hearing; and other information about the industry you work in, the VE will classify your past work as skilled, semi-skilled, or unskilled.

The level of skill associated with your work may determine that your learned skillset is transferrable to other work. You will need to prove that your skills are not transferrable, or the SSA is likely to rule that you are not sufficiently disabled to qualify for disability benefits.

Ways to Prove You Can’t Do Your Previous Work at a Disability Hearing

When facing a disability hearing, effectively demonstrating your inability to perform previous work is crucial. Here are key strategies to substantiate your claim, providing compelling evidence to support your case and increase your chances of a favorable outcome.

Get an RCF that Rules Out Previous Job Skills and Tasks

The first step in proving you’re too disabled to work is to have a Residual Functional Capacity (RFC) medical exam that rules out the skills required for your previous jobs. A good example of this is if you used to work in construction moving supplies that weighed over 50lbs or more and your RFC restricts you to lifting up to ten pounds, you won’t be eligible for your previous work any longer.

However, it’s seldom as straightforward as that to prove you’re no longer able to work. For example, you may have other limitations, such as the inability to squat, stoop, or crouch, that rules out your past work. This is why Vocational Experts work with disability judges to help sort out the details of a disability claim.

Ensure Your Vocational Expert Uses the Right Job Description

There are nearly as many types of jobs as there are people to work them. This means that you need to make sure your Vocational Expert is using the correct job description to describe your work. Your VE is going to look at your work history report and compare it to DOT job classifications to decide whether you can do any of the jobs you’ve done in the past. Be as detailed as possible about your roles and responsibilities, and take care not to misrepresent your position, as this will help significantly in proving your claim.

Ways to Prove You Can’t Do a Different Job

As important as it is to prove you can’t do your previous work anymore, it’s equally important to prove that you aren’t able to transition into a different role you may be qualified for. For example, if you used to do a physically demanding role, you may be able to perform sedentary work in an adjacent role.

To prove you can’t do a different job, be prepared to challenge the VE’s testimony about your job skills should they misrepresent the work you did. You should also be able to demonstrate how your medical limitations can prevent you from using transferable skills.

Doing so should help your disability judge understand the extent of your medical condition.

8 Tips for Filling Out the Work History Report

Filling Out a Work History Report

Navigating the intricacies of filling out a work history report can be daunting, but with the right guidance, it can become a seamless process. Here are essential tips to help you accurately document your professional journey and ensure your report stands out to potential employers or institutions.

Tip #1: Clearly and Honestly Explain How Being Disabled Limits Your Everyday Abilities

Fill out your Adult Function Form truthfully and clearly. Do not leave any required fields blank. Explain which routine tasks and job duties you could do before that you can’t do now because you’re disabled. Be honest about how often you need help. Think about how long you can stand or sit without pain. Don’t exaggerate, but don’t pretend your symptoms are better than what they actually are, either.

Tip #2: Skip Using “Never” and “Always” On Your Forms

This form isn’t a good place to be dramatic. Just give plain and clear information about the job tasks, movements, or requirements you could once perform, but now can’t because of your disability. Be clear about how your disability has changed your day-to-day life.

Tip #3: Be Aware of Mentioning Daily Activities That Could Also Describe Job Duties

If you can currently drive, cook, or clean your house, the SSA may decide that you can work just fine. One way to assess your current abilities in a realistic way is to keep a symptom diary for one week. You can refer to these notes when you fill out your adult functioning report.

Tip #4: Keep Your Answers Consistent With Your Doctor’s Assessment of How You’re Disabled

When you fill out your report, it’s important not to contradict whatever your doctor says. Keep your answers short and don’t provide a lot of details. For example: If your doctor says you cannot concentrate because of an injury or chronic pain, it makes no sense to tell the SSA you babysit sometimes for your neighbors.

Tip #5: Have Someone Who Knows You Review Your Adult Function Report

Sometimes it’s hard to be honest about how much we’ve changed due to a disability. It can also be tough to tell the truth about how well we actually function every day. For this reason, you should have someone who knows you well review your form’s answers. That person may remind you about challenges you have each day that you’d otherwise forget.

Tip #6: Don’t Forget Mental Functionality Concerns

A disability may leave you feeling physically unable to work — yet that’s only half the story. Yes, many jobs require you to walk, stand, sit or lift certain objects. But don’t forget to include symptoms that may affect your ability to focus, follow directions or concentrate at work.

These mental abilities are just as important (if not more so) than your physical abilities when it comes to fulfilling your job requirements. Be honest about any mental limitations you have now. Consider how well you handle stress on a daily basis. Think about your ability to follow verbal instructions without writing them down. You don’t have to be completely physically disabled to get benefits!

Tip #7: Consistency is the Key

If you’re on your way to an ALJ appeals hearing, the most important thing to remember is consistency. It’s easy to stay consistent if you simply tell the truth at all times. Don’t say on your report that you can’t prepare your own meals, but then say you cook sometimes at your hearing. Instead, update your report any time your condition improves or your symptoms get worse.

Tip #8: Submit Additional Documents That Help Prove You’re Disabled

Your claim is stronger if it comes with additional evidence from an acceptable medical source (AMS) explaining how you’re disabled. You can include medical records, a doctor’s letter, a list of medical equipment you use each day, records of psychiatric evaluations, and assessments from case workers or social workers. Any documents that show what you wrote on the claim is consistently true and stops you from working only increases your chances for approval!

Let an Attorney Help Prove You Can’t Work Anymore

When applying for disability benefits through the Social Security Administration (SSA), it can be incredibly beneficial to seek the assistance of an attorney. A disability attorney will have a better understanding of what goes into applying for disability and how to prove you can’t work to an Administrative Law Judge. Get in contact with a disability attorney today for help getting awarded disability benefits.

Laura Schaefer

Laura Schaefer is the author ofThe Teashop Girls,The Secret Ingredient, andLittler Women: A Modern Retelling. She is also an active co-author or ghostwriter of several nonfiction books on personal and business development. Laura currently lives in Windermere, Florida with her husband and daughter and works with clients all over the world. Visit her online at lauraschaeferwriter.com and linkedin.com.