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Exertional Capacity

When you apply for Social Security Disability benefits, you may be surprised to find that the emphasis is not placed on your disability or its severity, but rather on what you can do despite your disability. The term that disability examiners will use is “residual functional capacity.” This term literally means what abilities are left over when your disability is taken into account.

Disability examiners will give you a Residual Functional Capacity form for your doctor to fill out. These forms have about 25 questions and ask your doctor about your physical abilities, known as your “exertional capacity.” Exertional capacity means your ability to stand, walk, lift, carry, push, pull, and so on, and the purpose of these questions is to determine whether your limitations and restrictions prevent you from doing any kind of work.

Each physical ability or lack thereof will be considered separately. Your doctor will be asked how long you can sit, what weight you can lift, how far you are able to walk, etc. Your exertional capacities will then be considered in combination (walking/standing, lifting/carrying, and so on). The SSA regulations also discuss the “exertional levels” entailed by different types of work.

You may also see the term “non-exertional impairment,” which simply means factors other than physical strength that may impede your activities, such as pain, the ability to concentrate, flexibility, dexterity, vision, hearing, speech, and your ability to tolerate fluctuations in temperature and other environmental factors.

As with extertional capacity, non-exertional capacity is considered in terms of what you are able to do. For example, does your lack of ability to concentrate mean that you cannot follow instructions? Does your lack of dexterity mean you cannot type or write or answer the telephone? Does your lack of flexibility mean that stooping and climbing are out of the question for you?

Depending on the nature of the limitations and restrictions caused by your disability, the SSA may determine that you have exertional limitations or restrictions, non-exertional limitations or restrictions, or a combination of both. Some symptoms, such as pain, affect both exertional and non-exertional capabilities. Some symptoms, while affecting strength, can also affect flexibility. Some symptoms, while purely psychological, can impact your physical state as well (e.g., mental impairment causes debilitating fatigue). In order to qualify for Social Security disability benefits, you will have to prove that your residual functional capacity is such that you cannot perform any type of substantial gainful work.