Is Social Security Disability and SSI harder for a woman to get?

I think you can make the argument that, in some cases, it is harder for a woman to qualify for either Social Security Disability or SSI disability benefits. This does not appear to be the case for disability approvals made on the basis of meeting or equaling the requirments of a listing (the impairment listing manual, or blue book, contains approval criteria for a number of medical impairments). However, it can happen in cases where individuals are approved for benefits on the basis of a medical vocational allowance.

Medical vocational allowances occur when the determination is made that a claimant cannot return to their past work, and further cannot be expected to perform suitable types of other work.

How are women and men treated differently under this approval system? Well, consider this scenario. A man applies for disability benefits at the age of 55 and his past work was considered light (light work is the ability to lift 10 lbs frequently and 20 lbs occasionally). Furthermore, after reviewing his medical evidence, it is determined by social security that he is still capable of light work.

Will he be approved for disability? No, because he is considered capable of light work and his past work was classified as light. In other words, he can go back to his past work.

However, take an individual whose profile is exactly the same with the only difference being that his past work was medium (the ability to lift 25 lbs frequently and 50 lbs occasionally) and he will be approved for disability benefits.

This is because the rules used to govern social security decisions actually gives an individual who is 55 a break if his past work was medium and he is now only capable of light work. And this is a fair and compassionate break that takes into account the fact that older individuals with a history of labor-intensive work may not have the vocational flexibility to shift to different occupations by a certain age.

Are women given this same compassionate break? Theoretically, yes, but in practical terms, not really, simply because very few women will be in the position of having worked a job that can be classified as medium (lifting fifty pounds occasionally is significant even for most males).

Some would respond to this by saying that this is an fortunate but reasonable outcome. But is it reasonable? Part of the reasoning behind the medical vocational grid used by the social security administration is that 1. individuals of a certain age cannot be expected to transfer to new work as easily as younger individuals and 2. the base of jobs available to older individuals is significantly diminished as compared to the base of jobs available to younger individuals.

So, on the one hand a 55-year-old male with a history of medium work, who has been limited to light work, will be approved for disability benefits while a 55-year-old female with a history of light work, who has also been limited to light work, will not be approved for disability benefits---despite the fact that most women will not physically be capable of medium work and therefore could not have gotten this kind of job.

Is this fair? Not really. And here's why. The 55-year-old female disability applicant is just as disabled in the eyes of the social security administration as the 55-year-old male (remember, both individuals were limited to light work) but only one will qualify for benefits due to a factor that is largely beyond the control of most women, which is the inability, in most cases, to perform medium work.

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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