Applying for Social Security Disability Benefits with Hearing Loss
According to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH), more than 37 million adults in the U.S. report some hearing loss. The NIDCD and NIH report about a quarter of adults age 65 and older have disabling hearing loss. Numbers are lower among younger groups, reported at about 2% for middle-aged individuals and nearly 9% for people between the ages of 55 and 64. The risk of disabling hearing loss increases with age, but can occur at any time.
Loss of hearing may be correctable with a cochlear implant, dependent upon the cause of hearing loss. More than 58,000 adults have undergone cochlear implantation in the U.S., according to 2017 statistics published by the NIH. Whether your hearing loss is correctable or not, you may qualify for benefits, even if you decide not to undergo cochlear implantation surgery.
With severe hearing loss, you can potentially qualify for disability benefits through the Social Security Administration (SSA). Qualification not only makes you eligible for monthly cash benefits but may additionally qualify you for other state and federal programs, including medical coverage through Medicare and/or Medicaid.
Is Being Deaf a Disability?
Yes - being deaf is considered a disability because it can affect the way you participate in everyday life including going to work. The Social Security Administration (SSA) automatically grants disability benefits for victims who suffer from for profound hearing loss in both ears.
What are your chances of getting a disability benefit? The SSA's Blue Book listing 2.10 states the requirements for being granted disability benefits for hearing loss. To be eligible for disability benefits for hearing loss (without cochlear implants), you must meet one of the two following tests which are audiometry or the word recognition test.
Audiometry is when your average hearing threshold sensitivity for air conduction must be 90 decibels (dB) or worse in your better ear, and you must have a bone conduction hearing threshold of 60 decibels (dB) or worse in your better ear. You need to calculate your hearing loss by averaging your hearing at the sound frequencies of 500 hertz (Hz), 1,000 Hz, and 2,000 Hz. Using the word recognition test you must not be able to repeat more than 40 percent of a list of standardized words spoken in a word recognition test, which tests speech discrimination.
All testing is done without the use of hearing aids in. The SSA may also ask you to visit an audiologist to complete the auditory evoked response testing which measures brainwave responses to tones. This determines if your hearing is as bad as your pure tone audiometry tests show.
Hearing Loss with Cochlear Implants
If you have been given cochlear implants in one or two ears, you are automatically eligible for disability benefits for 12 months following the implantation, whether or not there is an improvement in your hearing within 12 months. After 12 months your disability benefits will not be extended unless your word recognition on a "Hearing in Noise Test" (HINT) is 60 percent or less.
Is Tinnitus a Disability?
Tinnitus is a condition that causes noises in one or both ears which could may be a clicking, ringing, buzzing or hissing sound. The noise may be a low or high pitch and the symptoms can be severe. It can result in difficulties with concentrating or following through conversations, deficient memory, lack of sleep, extreme anxiety and depression. As well as noise, tinnitus could be accompanied by loss of hearing and/or other ear, nose, and throat problems. Yes, it is possible to qualify for disability benefits for tinnitus and receive SSDI or SSI benefits.
The Costs of Hearing Loss
Hearing loss costs add up quickly, with medical exams, specialized tests, hearing aids and other communication assistance devices all piling on. In depth hearing evaluations, conducted by audiologists, are required to assess the degree and sometimes the type of hearing loss. Other medical exams may also be necessary to determine the root cause of hearing decline, including appointments with otolaryngologists or ear, nose, and throat specialists.
Hearing can sometimes be improved with hearings aids. These devices average about $4,500 for a pair, according to Hearing Review magazine. Most insurance companies only cover hearing aids when hearing loss is due to specific causes. Other insurances may only cover a small percentage of the total expense. This may leave patients trying to foot the bill on their own.
Cochlear implantation procedures are even more costly, with the Gift of Hearing Foundation reporting average costs that range from $75,000 to $125,000, dependent upon the facility at which the surgery is performed.
When hearing loss occurs, lost work time accumulates quickly as well and often a loss of employment follows. This is because most that experience a decline in hearing have a steep learning curve to overcome in order to again effectively communicate with others. They must learn to read lips, sign, and speak without being able to hear their own voice. These adjustments take time and can be extremely difficult for adults, particularly when faced with the emotional and psychological challenges disabling hearing loss typically brings.
Many hearing impaired workers also lose their ability to perform essential job functions. Production workers for example who have severe hearing loss cannot hear over loud equipment and/or may not even be able to safely perform their jobs any longer.
Although the Hearing Loss Association of America does not specify average earnings lost over a lifetime by the hearing impaired, they do draw a direct correlation between hearing decline and earnings decline. In other words, as a person’s ability to hear drops, their earnings steadily drop along with it.
If you are no longer able to earn a gainful living due to hearing loss, you may be able to qualify for disability benefits from the SSA, which can help you pay every day bills, medical expenses, and other essentials. In fact, not being able to work can be one of the most common signs your disability claim will be approved.
Medically Qualifying for Benefits for Hearing Loss
Most people that receive disability benefits do so because they meet one of the SSA’s disability listings in the Blue Book. Hearing loss applicants can qualify under two different listings:
- Hearing Loss (2.10) – which requires:
An average hearing threshold of 60 to 90 decibels or greater in the better ear, dependent upon the testing method
- A word recognition score of 40 percent or lower in the better ear
- Hearing Loss with a Cochlear Implant (2.11)– which automatically qualifies medically for disability benefits for at least one year after surgery.
If your hearing loss is not severe enough to meet the hearing loss listing, you may be able to qualify for benefits by meeting or closely matching the Disturbance of labyrinthine-vestibular function (2.07) listing instead. For this listing, your medical records must show you experience ongoing issues with balance and tinnitus along with a progressive decline in hearing ability.
Take our Social Security calculator to see how much you could get with disability benefits.
Qualifying for Disability without Meeting a Listing in the Blue Book
Under certain conditions, people can get disability benefits without meeting or matching a disability listing. When applicants qualify in this manner, they are granted a “medical vocational allowance” after the SSA conducts a “residual functional capacity” or RFC evaluation.
In an RFC, the SSA looks at your age, education level, job skills, work history, training, and other factors to determine the kinds of work for which you’re qualified. They then compare the usual job duties in your qualified work areas with your physical, mental, and/or emotional limitations. They use your medical records and information you and your doctor provide on “functional report” forms to complete this comparison.
Functional reports document your daily limitations in performing normal tasks, like buying groceries, cleaning your home, taking care of your pets, or preparing food. From this information and from all the other details on your application and in your medical records, the SSA can determine if your hearing loss keeps you from working in any job for which you are otherwise qualified.
For example, a person who has always worked direct customer service positions and has minimal transferable skills may qualify because their hearing loss prevents them from effectively communicating. In a case like this, an RFC may be sufficient for getting disability.
How to Apply for Disability Benefits with Hearing Loss
The disability application process varies, dependent upon the program for which you apply.
- For SSI, you must be interviewed by an SSA representative. An interview may be held at the local office or may be done over the phone in some cases. If you use TTY/TDD, call 1-800-325-0778 to communicate with an SSA representative. Or, if you have a hearing individual assisting you, they can call 1-800-772-1213.
- For SSDI, you can apply in person at the local office, over the phone (in some cases), or online.
For both of these programs, you’ll need your work history, current employment information, details of your finances, and the contact information for all of your doctors or other healthcare providers. The SSA will also need detailed medical information from you and will request copies of all your medical records.
The specific records they need to see in order to approve you for disability benefits may include:
- Calcoric or other vestibular tests
- Audiometry results
- HINT or HINT-C word recognition measures
- Bone and/or air conduction test results
Whether you apply online, in person at your SSA office, or over the phone, be as thorough as you can with your application and be sure to provide an answer for every question, even if you simply note that a question doesn’t apply in your particular case.
Work closely with your doctor to ensure the SSA has the medical evidence they need to make a determination on your claim, and don’t hesitate to get assistance if you need it.
You can have a friend, family member, social worker, or someone else assist you. You may even wish to seek help from a Social Security attorney or disability advocate, especially if you may need to go through an RFC evaluation to be approved for benefits. You can learn more about your case and potentially find representation by filling out this quick and free evaluation form.