How to Apply for Disability

When and How you can apply for disability benefits

Author: Tim Moore, Accredited Disability Representative and former Social Security Disability Examiner.


When can you apply for disability?

Successfully applying for disability means satisfying the Social Security definition of disability. Therefore, to be eligible for disability, you must have a severe physical or mental condition that has kept, or will keep you, from earning a substantial and gainful income for at least a year.

(Read you live in North Carolina)

If you have a disabling condition, or several disabling conditions, the time to apply for disability will be when you stop working, or stop working substantially.

How do you apply for disability?

You can file in one of three ways. You can start the process of applying for disability through a local Social Security office; or you can start the process by calling the toll free national line; or you can begin by using Social Security’s online application process.

Speaking as a former disability examiner, I would advise you to avoid the online process. It can be repetitive, time-consuming and very confusing. Very often, if you use the online process you will still need to be contacted by a local office anyway. So it makes sense to start with a local office and have the opportunity to ask whatever questions you have, versus dealing with a computer system. This lessens confusion and the chance of making mistakes that can waste your valuable time.

However, there is another reason for avoiding the online process, which is that it can take a long time for Social Security to actually do anything WITH your online claim. It could potentially just sit there for weeks before you get contacted. If you simply call a local office, they can immediately set up an appointment to have your application interview done over the phone, which is far less complicated than making an in-person trip to the Social Security office.

Regarding the national toll free line…avoid, avoid, avoid. It is a known fact by many disability representatives such as myself, as well as the individuals who work in Social Security field offices, that the toll free line is useless at best, and often misleading. The people who staff that line are generally new and inexperienced, meaning they probably cannot help you and may hurt your claim.

Beginning your disability claim

When you begin your disability claim with a local Social Security office, you will have a disability application interview. You get this interview scheduled simply by making your initial phone call to the Social Security office where they will set the appointment for the interview. The interview, as we said, can be done over the phone, or in person at the office. In either case, you will want to prepare by getting the following information together in advance to make the process easier and simpler.

What information do you need for your disability claim?

Your medical conditions

Give Social Security a list of all your diagnosed medical conditions, but also any conditions that you believe you have but have not been treated for. This is especially true in cases where a person has a condition related to pain, or depression, or reduced functionality.

If you have not been treated for a condition, SSA still needs to know about the condition and they may send you to an exam that they will schedule and pay for.

Your medical treatment sources

Gather all the information on your medical treatment sources, including the names of your doctors, hospitals, and clinics, and also including addresses and dates of treatment.

Make sure you include recent treatment information, but also treatment information from when your condition began, even if this was years in the past. This is especially important because older medical records can help get you the full back pay you deserve and get you onto medicare more quickly.

Your jobs and work history

Give Social Security a full list of all your jobs for the last 15 years, with job titles and descriptions of the work as you performed it. Some individuals will be eligible for disability because they have a condition on the list of impairments and their medical records prove that they meet the disability criteria.

However, most people do not get approved this way and need to show that their condition makes it impossible to go back to an old job, or use their skills to do other work. So, full and accurate information about your work history is just as important as what your medical records say.

What medical conditions can you file a disability claim for?

Medical conditions that may qualify for disability benefits can be physical or mental. And very few applications mention just one condition. Most people list a mixture of both physical and mental conditions. It is important for anyone applying for disability to list every condition they have since this will help decide if they can still engage in work activity.

Regarding physical impairments, disability applications often list the following problems:

Osteoarthritis and other forms of arthritis (such as rheumatoid arthritis), heart problems, high blood pressure, diabetes, diabetic neuropathy, MS, irritable bowel syndrome, crohn’s disease, peripheral artery disease, various forms of cancer, eye problems, hearing problems, epilepsy, asthma, COPD, reflex sympathetic dystrophy, muscular dystrophy, and meniere’s disease.

Regarding mental impairments (psychological and psychiatric), disability applications often include the following problems:

Bipolar disorder, major depression, schizophrenia, low IQ, personality disorder, anxiety disorder, panic attacks, autism, asperger’s, and mental retardation.

How most people win disability

In the vast majority of cases, to win your case you will need to show that your condition causes enough functional limitations (for example, a reduced ability to sit, stand, walk, lift, carry, remember, comprehend, etc) that you cannot return to your old jobs, or switch to new work that you have never done before.

If you have a lawyer or disability representative, this is what that individual will work to prove on your case, usually at a hearing before an administrative law judge. Proving this will require examing your medical records, including your most recent ones, and your history of jobs. The representative, such as myself, will work to become familiar with all aspects of your work and medical history because it is often likely that the judge will have a vocational expert or even a medical expert present at the hearing. And countering them requires preparation and skill.