Does Level of Education or Age Matter for Social Security Disability or SSI?

Age will play a role in determining decisions on disability claims but usually comes into play when a person is older, either fitting into the fifty and above age range, or the fifty-five and above age range. These are the points at which age becomes more of a consideration and age can provide a benefit for someone who has relatively more functional limitations and, correspondingly, less education and fewer job skills.

Your level of education does a play a role in the evaluation process used by both the Social Security Disability and SSI disability programs. However, the effect of one's education level is not nearly as much as many people would assume. And there are many cases in which educational level does not even enter into the process.

These cases, of course, are those in which a claimant is approved on the basis of satisfying the requirements of a listing in the blue book (the Social Security Disability list of impairments - see the link in the top menu).

When cases are approved this way, it is because their medical records provide detailed enough information which conforms to the disability approval criteria of a specific listing, such as, for example, lupus or bipolar disorder, or degenerative disc disease. Most cases that are eventually approved are not approved because a listing has been met. So how are most Social Security Disability and SSI cases approved?

Most claims are approved through a sequential evaluation process that involves examining the claimant's medical records and work history information. The objective is to determine how limited--physically or mentally, or both--the person is (note: the limitations are rated on either a residual functional capacity form or a mental residual functional capacity form) and then compare this assessment to their relevant work history.

The goal for the adjudicator, a disability examiner or a federally appointed judge, will be to decide whether or not the claimant can go back to work at a substantial and gainful level, either at a job they've done in the past, or doing some type of new and other work for which their skills and training may allow a successful transition.

When cases are approved in this manner, meaning that a claimant is given a medical vocational allowance, level of education is one of the factors considered--along with the claimant's age, level of functional capacity (less than sedentary, sedentary, light, medium), and their level of skills (unskilled or no skills, skilled or semi-skilled with the skills not being transferrable to some type of other work, skilled or semi-skilled with the skills being transferrable to some type of other work).

However, speaking as a former disability examiner and as someone with a history of involvement in the representation of disability claims, education level is seldom ever a deciding factor.

For the most part, when disability examiners and social security judges use the grids (the disability rules for directing outcomes of cases that do not satisfy listing requirements), the only important distinction that will typically enter into the decisional process is whether or not the claimant has a high school education or less.

This is important to point out because many claimants with advanced degrees (bachelors, masters, etc) who have been denied for disability benefits will assume that their disability denial was based on their level of education. However, the real answer is that beyond their having a high school diploma, their level of education ceased to be a consideration.

So, in answer to the question, one's level of education does get considered in the social security evaluation process. However, it seldom has any real effect on a decision unless the individual is either of advanced age (ages 60-64) or is closely approaching advanced age (ages 50-54) AND also has a low level of education AND a low level of job skills.

For individuals who are in their forties or younger and are unskilled and illiterate would not be approved for disability unless their condition limited them to less than sedentary work or made them incapable of performing sustained, routine, repetitive tasks.

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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