Is age a big Factor in the Social Security Disability Process?

Age is certainly a factor in the Social Security Disability process (and SSI process, since claims in both disability programs are medically evaluated in the exact same manner---the non-medical criteria is what sets SSD and SSI apart). However, it is not as big a factor as many claimants might assume. How does a claimant's age figure into the process at all? In a couple of different ways.

First, claims for disability determination purposes, are segregated by age. What do I mean by this? Simply that when a disability examiner evaluates a claimant's case to see whether or not they will meet or equal a listing (in the Social Security Disability list of impairments), they will look to either the childhood listings or the adult listings. For some impairments, the disability criteria for children is markedly different than that for adults.

Also, for individuals who cannot be approved on the basis of a listing (most individuals who are approved are actually not approved because they have met a listing), but, instead, are granted an approval through the sequential evaluation process, the criteria is again different for children versus adults.

In essence, the difference between the two boils down to this: adults are evaluated on the basis of whether or not they can peform work activity (either past work or other work), while children are evaluated on the basis of whether or not they can engage in age-appropriate activities.

What is the second way that age is given consideration with regard to the disability process? This occurs in adult claims in which claimants may not be awarded by meeting or equaling a listing in the blue book, but instead may be awarded by being given something known as a medical vocational allowance.

A medical vocational allowance is an approval (and denial) method by which a disability examiner or disability judge will review a claimant's medical treatment history and work history. The purpose is to determine--based on a claimant's job skills, type of work performed, education, and current mental or physical limitations--whether or not a claimant can A) return to some type of work they have done in the past or B) perform some type of other work for which they might be suited based on the factors we just mentioned plus the additional factor of age.

How does age figure into it? The older a person is, the less likely they will be considered to be able to transition to other forms of work. This is, of course, a practical consideration since older workers will typically have fewer employment opportunities available to them. It is also practical due to the fact that, being older and having a much longer work history, they may possibly retain job skills that are outdated or less valued in the present national economy.

Having said this, though, as a disability examiner, I found it to be the case that age is not a crucial factor in the majority of Social Security Disability cases and SSI disability cases. In fact, age will seldom ever be the deciding factor in a case except when a claimant has either attained age 50, or is age 55 or older. Why is this? Because when a person turns fifty, the medical vocational rules that govern disability decisions become noticeably more favorable. And when a person turns age 55, the rules become even more favorable.

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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