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How to Prove Disability

It's important to know how to prove disability for Social Security disability benefits. This is so even if you think your case is a slam dunk. After all, the Social Security Administration (SSA) denies most initial applications. Learn more about the criteria for proving disability under the Social Security disability insurance (SSDI) or Supplemental Security Income (SSI) programs.

How the SSA Defines Disability

The Social Security Administration (SSA) takes a strict definition of disability. You will only receive SSDI monthly benefits or SSI monthly benefits for total disability. In other words, you can't be partially or temporarily disabled and still qualify for Social Security disability benefits.

After you apply for SSDI or SSI at your local social security office, the SSA office takes a multi-step disability evaluation process. You must show the following to meet SSA's definition of disability:

  • You are not earning at "substantial gainful activity" (SGA) levels. The SGA amount for non-blind individuals is $1,470 a month in 2023.
  • Your impairment is "severe." This means you can't do basic work-related activities because of your disability. It also means your disability will last at least one year, or your disability is expected to result in death.
  • Your condition is considered so disabling that you are eligible for automatic approval. These conditions, described in the "Blue Book," include arthritis, heart disease, asthma, and others. But, even if you have a condition in the Listing of Impairments, you'll still need evidence to show that you meet the severity level required for automatic approval.
  • You can't do the type of work you did before your disability.
  • You can't do other work activities because of your disability.

Gather or Develop Your Medical History

One of the most common reasons SSA denies disability claims is because claimants don't submit enough medical evidence. The Disability Determination Services (DDS) first develops the medical evidence. The DDS, a state agency funded by the federal government, decides claims at the first and second levels of the process. If there isn't enough evidence, the DDS will deny your claim.

If you decide to appeal, continue to develop evidence. Decision-makers at later stages will want to see evidence of your disability. They will want to see medical records dating back to when you stated your disability first started. This is called your disability onset date. But sometimes, finding your disability onset date can be difficult.

If the SSA does not have enough evidence to decide your claim, it may send you for a consultative examination. An independent medical source or your doctor will examine you during the appointment. The medical source will write and submit a report with the findings to the SSA. The SSA uses the report and other evidence to make a disability decision.

Use of Your Doctors

Doctors can provide assessments of your physical condition and mental condition. Ask your treating physician for a written statement about how your medical condition impacts your life.

You may also want the opinions of medical specialists. But remember that the SSA only gives some medical professionals equal credibility. For example, an Administrative Law Judge may discredit a specialist for examining you only once. You may also jeopardize your claim if you have decided to seek treatment from a naturopathic doctor instead of a conventional M.D.

Follow your doctor's orders, including taking medications and attending therapy sessions. Don't assume your doctor will support your claim. But do make sure you agree about your diagnosis and symptoms. Communicate clearly to your doctor about any functional limitations you may have.

Prepare Your Non-Medical Evidence

Keep a detailed journal of your daily activities from when you wake up to before bedtime. Pay special attention to how your impairment affects your ability to perform everyday tasks. If you're presenting your case on appeal to an administrative law judge (ALJ), be ready to describe your ability to walk, sit, stand, carry objects, and perform other specific tasks.

Don't be afraid to ask your coworkers and supervisors when they noticed your condition began to affect your work. Compile a list of people who can attest to your impairment and how it affects your ability to perform specific tasks. You may ask that friends and family members submit written letters to the SSA office about how your condition impacts your life. These third-party observations may give the decision-maker further insight into your disability.

Be careful not to exaggerate your ability to perform a given physical or mental task. Explain honestly how your disability limits your ability to work full-time. It's not enough to have symptoms of a disability. The symptoms must limit your ability to work.

The SSA office will often look for ways to deny your claim, including inconsistencies that challenge your credibility. Remember that you may have to persuade up to four decision-makers that you meet the definition of disability. This includes claims examiners at the initial and reconsideration stages. It also includes an Administrative Law Judge and the Appeals Council during the appeals process. So, you want to ensure your evidence is consistent and air-tight so that at least one of the decision-makers agrees with you.

Get Your Information in Order

The application for SSDI benefits or SSI benefits requires detailed information. The SSA provides a checklist for online adult disability applications. The list isn't exhaustive. You're free to give more information to strengthen your claim.

An Attorney Can Help You Prove the Merit of Your Social Security Disability Claim

If your case is complicated, consider contacting a Social Security disability lawyer. A disability attorney can explain the Social Security disability eligibility criteria. They can also help you with the application process. A lawyer can also help you identify what medical tests and expert opinions will help your claim. Get started today and contact an experienced Social Security disability attorney.

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Next Steps

Contact a qualified social security lawyer to assist in your social security disability matter.

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