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Higher Education and being Denied Disability benefits

Many users on our forum have asked, “How does education factor into the disability decision making process?” Are educated workers denied SSI or SSDI benefits at a higher rate than uneducated workers? In this blog will analyze the factors which the Social Security Administration (SSA) uses to determine if you are disabled.

How does the SSA make their disability determination?

Determining disability is a difficult multi-step process. The Social Security Administration has two methods they use to determine if applicants are disabled:

  1. First the SSA will determine if your medical impairment meets or medically equals an impairment which is listed on the Social Security Administration’s Listing of Impairments. This listing, also informally known as the Blue Book, outlines the mental and physical health conditions and symptoms that the SSA considers automatically disabling.

  2. If your condition does not meet or exceed the listing in the SSA Blue Book the SSA will determine if your disability is so severe you are unable to perform any type of work which is available in significant numbers in the national economy.

If your condition meets or exceeds a listing the SSA never evaluates nonmedical factors such as age or education to decide whether or not you are disabled. But if your condition does not meet a listing the Social Security Administration must determine not only that you cannot do your past relevant work, but that you are unable to do any other work which exists in significant numbers in the national economy. This evaluation is done as part of the Social Security Administration’s sequential evaluation process and allows the SSA to determine your remaining capacity to work.

Through the sequential evaluation process the SSA does consider your educational level, your age and your work experience. The Security Administration uses a tool they have created called the Medical-Vocational Guidelines or “grids” which is basically a series of charts the disability examiner can refer to when making a disability determination.

How does the SSA determine the work you can perform?

The SSA examiner will review your work history and what they term your residual functional capacity to work to determine if you can perform sedentary, light, medium, heavy, or very heavy work.

After the Social Security Administration determines the type of work you can perform they will refer to the grids, which are divided by types of work. By referring to the appropriate grid and examining your work capabilities, age and past employment the Social Security Administration can determine if you are disabled or not disabled.

There are also specific groups of workers who are found automatically disabled. For instance, workers with a 6th grade education level who have been performing arduous unskilled labor for at least 35 years may be found disabled if they are no longer able to do arduous unskilled work.

So will education hurt your chances of getting SSDI or SSI benefits? It could. For instance, if you are young, highly educated and your condition does not meet or exceed a listing, it will be difficult to be found disabled according to the grid rules. If, however, your conditions is severe enough to meet or exceed a listing you can be determined disabled, regardless of your educational level, assuming you meet the nonmedical requirements of the SSDI or SSI program.


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