The Social Security Disability application process can be cumbersome. If your request for financial assistance has been denied both at the initial level and reconsideration levels (in most states), you may appeal for a hearing in front of an administrative law judge (ALJ).
While you may be feeling discouraged and frustrated at this point in the process, you should know that most requests for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) are won at the hearing level. If you can provide enough medical evidence, your perseverance may pay off at your hearing.
While appearing in front of an ALJ may feel intimidating, it is arguably the most crucial step in the Social Security Disability process. Here, you will have the opportunity to personally present your case, including any information that you feel has been overlooked.
Depending on the judge, hearings can last anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour, in most cases. To improve your chances of winning your claim, preparation is essential! Consider the following five factors when preparing to discuss your application with the ALJ.
1. How Disabled You Are as Evidenced by Medical Evidence
Despite your efforts to move your application along, the average wait times for a disability hearing in front of an ALJ are approximately a year and a half. As such, when you are finally granted a hearing date, you will want to do everything you can to ensure that you are prepared.
While the ALJ will have some of your medical documentation on file from the initial application process, you will want to be sure that your recent medical information is available to the judge. When you are given a hearing date, which is required to be assigned at least 75 days in advance, you should be certain that all of your medical information is up to date and submitted to the hearing office. If you gather new medical evidence as your hearing approaches, be sure to bring copies to your hearing in the event that the judge did not receive them.
The medical evidence that you have available will depend on your condition, but may include physician notes, surgical records, hospital or emergency room records, medical tests, lab work, and records from other healthcare professionals. You can explore the list of medical conditions for disability approval here.
2. How Disabling a Condition is as Evidenced by Medical Evidence
In addition to proving how severe your condition is, you will need to demonstrate how disabling it is as well. While you don’t want to exaggerate your symptoms, you don’t want to minimize them either. The best way to do this is to offer specific medical evidence about your limitations.
As part of your medical evidence, be certain to obtain an updated medical source statement, or letter, from your doctor that details your health and what activities you can and cannot do. Some physicians prefer to fill out a Residual Functional Capacity (RFC) assessment, which mimics the evaluation often completed by the Social Security Administration (SSA). The exact format used by your physician is less important than is the fact that your doctor provides an updated explanation of your work capabilities.
Some applicants enhance their application by requesting friends, family, or former employers to write statements on their behalf. While ALJs do not have the time to sort through pages of information, one or two letters that specifically speak to your work or life limitations may help your cause. For example, a letter from a past employer illustrating your inability to do your job despite being a fantastic employee is bound to be helpful.
3. An Inability to Work for at Least 12 Months
In order to earn SSDI benefits, your condition must be severe enough to keep you out of work for at least one year. Specifically, the SSA defines disability as, “the inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity (SGA) by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment(s) which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months.”
By the time you have reached your disability hearing, the chances are very high that you will have been out of work for at least 12 months. However, be prepared to discuss the long-term prognosis of your condition at your hearing. If the ALJ believes that you have the chance to improve in the short-term, you may be denied the financial assistance you are seeking.
4. An Inability to Keep your Current Job
If you have been offered a disability hearing, it is because the SSA did not feel that you fit the criteria listed in the Blue Book. While you may be able to influence an ALJ that you do indeed meet or match a listing at your hearing, the chances are that you will need to qualify for a medical vocational allowance. As such, you will need to prove to the ALJ that your condition is so severe that you are unable to keep your current job. It is here that you will need to present your Residual Functional Capacity (RFC) assessment.
Be prepared to discuss both your physical limitations as well as your psychological limitations. While your condition may be impacting your ability to do physical tasks such as walk, sit, lift, grasp, or balance, your mental health may also be severely affected by your illness. If you experience anxiety or depression as a result of your condition, be certain that this is documented by a medical professional.
As documentation is critical, be certain that you have a list of jobs that you have done for the last 15 years, as well as the skills required for those jobs. Be sure to carefully review your past positions and determine what job requirements might be difficult to fulfill now given your current state. Be certain to highlight any jobs that you might have been unsuccessful at due to your health condition.
At most disability hearings, a vocational expert will testify as to your work history and what jobs you might be able to perform given your condition. You will want to be certain that you can speak to questions asked surrounding your ability to work.
5. Inability to Take a Relevant Job
To be approved for SSDI benefits, you will need to prove that not only are you unable to perform your most recent job, but that your condition prohibits you from working in another field for which you are qualified.
Using your residual functional capacity assessment, the ALJ will determine if the skills that you possess from your education and past work experience are transferable to another job. If your RFC limits you to “less than sedentary” work, it is highly likely that you will be approved for disability benefits. However, if you have been given a classification of sedentary, light, medium, or heavy work, the chances are that you will be denied disability benefits.
Be prepared to discuss your limitations as they apply to your work. If you are unable to lift up to ten pounds, unable to stand or walk for a total of two hours a day, can’t stoop down, or are unable to move around without assistive devices, you might be given a “less than sedentary” classification.
How a Disability Attorney Can Help Prove Your Claim
Attending a disability hearing with an ALJ can be a stressful process. While it’s not as glamorous as you see on television, you will be asked questions under oath. Your approval for disability benefits will hinge on the medical evidence you can provide, your organization, your ability to answer questions clearly and precisely, and your ability to prove that your condition is so disabling that you are unable to work in any field.
A qualified disability attorney has experience attending hearings, as well as preparing clients for what to expect. Your attorney will analyze your case and offer you the best strategies for success. Applicants with a disability lawyer are more than twice as likely to win their SSDI claims.