What does SSA consider a severe impairment for Social Security Disability or SSI Disability Benefits?

Disability examiners (the individuals who make decisions on Social Security Disability and SSI disability claims) have to discern, when they look at a disability application, a number of things. One of those things is whether or not the claimant's condition (which may be mental, physical, or a combination of conditions) is severe.

What is severe according to the social security administration? Disability examiners actually get very little guidance on what is "severe". Obviously, for the purposes of awarding disability benefits, a sprained ankle or a minor cut is not severe, while a broken limb may potentially be severe is the limb does not heal satisfactorily. Because the word "severe" tends to be subjective, as in "many people disagree on what constitutes severe", the social security administration spends more time instead defining what is...not severe.

For SSA, a mental or physical impairment is not severe if it only results in a minimal inability to work and earn a substantial, gainful income. For children's cases, a mental or physical impairment is not severe if it only results in a minimal inability to engage in age-appropriate activities such as academic endeavors.

Most applicants who file for disability do, in fact, have at least one severe impairment. This is because the great majority of disability claimants only file a claim when their condition has become severe enough to affect their ability to work.

And, in the case of parents filing on behalf of their children, claims are usually filed when a child exhibits physical deficits (asthma, adhd, seizures) or social or cognitive deficits that are often evidenced in a school environment. The question, therefore, for disability examiners and disability judges, is whether a condition has become severe enough to put a significant burden on one's ability to work or, for children, engage in age-appropriate activities.

"How severe" a condition is can only be proven through evidence that is obtained by the social security administration, whether that evidence consists of medical records, academic records, letters from doctors, or special examinations that have been scheduled for a claimant by the social security administration. For this reason, one of the most important things a claimant can do is to always supply a detailed list of treatment sources when filing a claim for disability.

Yet, despite the obviousness of this, many claimants, when they visit a local social security office, do not supply complete information. Sometimes, they leave many of their doctors off the disability application report form. And, amazingly, sometimes claimants fail to list entire conditions that they are afflicted with.

In some cases, this may be because the claimant mistakenly assumes that social security can magically "look up" any information that pertains to their condition. However, records can only be gathered from medical treatment sources that SSA is made aware of. And for this reason claimants should supply as much information as possible when they apply for disability benefits.

About the Author: Tim Moore is a former Social Security Disability Examiner in North Carolina, has been interviewed by the NY Times and the LA Times on the disability system, and is an Accredited Disability Representative (ADR) in North Carolina. For assistance on a disability application or Appeal in NC, click here.

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