If your Social Security Disability application is reviewed by a Social Security disability examiner or an Administrative Law Judge they will use three basic criteria to determine if you are disabled. First, do you have a mental or physical condition that is substantiated through medical documentation? Second, is your condition so severe that it prevents you from performing substantial gainful activity? Third, is your mental or physical health condition expected to last for at least 12 months or result in your death?
The disability examiner will specifically use what the Social Security Administration calls the Sequential Evaluation Process to determine if you are disabled.
STEP 1: Are you working?
If a claimant is working and the Social Security Administration determines it is “substantial work” the Social Security Disability claim is automatically denied without a review of the claimant’s mental or physical health condition.
STEP 2: Do you have a severe impairment?
If a claimant’s condition is not severe and does not affect their functional ability to work the claimant is denied Social Security Disability benefits.
STEP 3: Does the impairment equal or exceed an impairment listed in the guidelines?
The Social Security Administration has a list of impairments which they consider severe and if a claimant’s condition equals or exceeds the listing the claimant is automatically awarded Social Security Disability benefits.
Now you may be curious about the question of functional capacity to perform work and how it is factored into the Social Security Disability decision. Until Step 4 of the sequential analysis, functional work capacity is not considered, but at Step 4 it is the most important consideration that the disability examiner will consider when awarding disability benefits.
STEP 4: Are you able to do your past employment?
The disability examiner will review all of the relevant jobs a claimant has performed over the past 15 years and determine if the claimant has enough “residual work capacity” to perform their past job or a similar job. If the disability examiner determines you are not substantially limited by your mental or physical health condition and you can perform past work, you will be denied Social Security Disability benefits.
STEP 5: Is there any other lighter work you can do?
The disability examiner will assess a claimant’s physical abilities which include the nature and extent of the claimant’s limitations and their ability to work a job on a continuing and regular basis. Physical limitations can include the inability to: sit, stand, walk, lift, carry, push, pull, stoop, reach, crouch or manipulate objects. The mental abilities of the claimant are also evaluated including their inability to: understand, remember, carry out instructions, respond to supervisors or adapt to a work setting.
The Social Security Administration does not decide disability based on functional capacity alone in fact, there are a variety of vocational factors which are also considered such as a claimant’s age, educational level and work history. The most important consideration for claimants, however, is not what type of disability they have been diagnosed with but whether or not their condition(s) are severe and leave them with so little residual functional capacity to work that the claimant is unable to perform substantial gainful activity.