Social Security Disability and SSI:

Filing your claim isn’t going to be fun. SSA will send you a packet of papers to complete, or you can complete the application online. Either way, many of these questions are repetitive. They will want to know what you think is wrong with you. They will want all of your doctor’s names and addresses. They will want to know what you do on an average day. They will want to know what you did at your past job. Some of the questions see outright dumb.

Or are they?

Let’s take these questions one by one.

Of course asking for your doctor’s names and addresses isn’t dumb. But what’s dumb is asking for that information and not getting the medical records. You need to be your own best advocate and check with each of your doctors and make sure that SSA has gotten the records from that doctor. (Actually it may be DDU who gets the records – the Disability Determination Unit.) You can speed processing your claim if you provide your doctor’s name, full address, and phone number. You may even be able to make processing your claim go faster if you provide your file number.

What you did on your past job isn’t dumb because one of the first hurdles to cross in a Social Security claim is whether you can do your past relevant work. Hence, they want to know, from you, what you did at your past work. A word of advice – don’t lie about it. Don’t think you can win your case by proving you can’t do your past work. Hardly anyone can win their claims that way. It is merely a step in the sequential evaluation that SSA must follow, that is all.

If you preformed the job the way it was preformed in the national economy, tell them. Just say, “I did the regular duties of a convenience store clerk. I waited on customers. I rang up purchase, made change, and stocked shelves.” However, if you didn’t perform the job the way it was usually preformed, then tell them. This become particularly important in the case of someone who was given special accommodations, usually by a family member, so he or she could work.

Let’s say we have a woman who owns a small grocery store. Her sister has terrible back problems and is unable to keep a job because of those problems. This woman hires her sister to work the register, but tells her that she can go to the back and lay down any time she wants and she’ll work the register for her. The sister ends up lying down in the back half the time she’s there yet she still gets paid. That is a special accommodation.

If you are wondering whether you received a special accommodation, ask yourself whether you’ve really earned the money you were paid. If the work you performed wasn’t worth what you were paid, you probably received a special accommodation.

Special accommodations need not only come from family members. An employer may give a special accommodation to an employee who has been with the company a long time. Whether it be family or former employer, if you received special accommodations, this is something that should be documented and submitted when you file your claim. Don’t say you received special accommodations when you didn’t.

Before I go any further let me just say you should never verbally or in writing ever say anything that is not true. The Social Security Administration has a way of finding these lies, even the small ones, and using them to deny your claim whether or not the lie had anything to do with the ultimate question of whether you are disabled. If they catch you lying or exaggerating in any way they are fond of saying that you are not credible, and that you therefore can not be believed in anything you say.

You will be asked questions about your levels of pain, your level of fatigue, what you do on an average day, and so forth. You will be asked these questions more than once as you will later be sent forms from DDU (Disability Determination Unit) that ask these very same questions.

First, you should always make a copy of everything you give to Social Security. In this case, if you had made a copy of your application prior to giving it to Social Security, you would have had what you said on that application to use in completing the forms from DDU. Remember, you must be consistent. Make copies. A copy also helps if SSA loses your applications. They often do.

Second, tell them about everything that is wrong with you. Remember, it doesn’t matter that it was only the back injury, for example, that caused you to quit work. The Social Security Act requires the Administration is required to review all of your impairments because of the combination of impairments rule. It may be that SSA doesn’t believe your back injury entitles you to disability benefits but the combination of everything that is wrong with you renders you disabled.

If you do not have a high school education and had any trouble with learning in school, get your school records and submit them.

Third, and most important, describe your limitations. How far can you walk? How long can you stand? How long can you sit? Do you need to stand a while then sit a while? Can you use foot or hand controls? Your limitations are actually more important than what is wrong with you because different people are affected differently by, for example, a herniated disk. This is where the evaluate what is called your Residual Functional Capacity.

What are your pain issues – remember, no exaggerations! Most people are familiar with the pain scale of 1-10. I always liked to describe that scale as 0-10 instead of 1-10 because 0 meant no pain. For goodness sakes, don’t say your pain is a level 10 unless a social worker is filing your claim for you from your hospital bed and you’re screaming for a shot of morphine! It’s like this: 0 means no pain but 10 is the very highest possible pain. A level 10 pain is like your body is on fire, you’re dying of cancer, and you’re having a baby all at the same time. If you’re able to talk, you do not have a level 10 pain. Moreover, no one ever believes a level 10 pain. So be realistic when you describe your pain. Unless you’re covered in burns, you probably don’t have anything higher than an 8.

On the other hand, I’ve had clients, particularly males, who downplay their pain. I think they do this because they don’t like to admit they are disabled. So they say that their pain isn’t “too bad.” That’s another kind of dishonesty – not telling the truth about how bad something affects you. If you’re really in pain bad enough to keep you from doing things, then your pain is over a level 5. Don’t hang back and not say so. Otherwise, you’re just wasting everyone’s time, including your own.

Fatigue and side effects of medications are evaluated the same way; that is, do they interfere with your ability to function. With fatigue SSA looks at whether the fatigue requires you to lie or sit down every day, whether it interferes with your ability to think, concentrate, and remember, and whether it is worsened by physical activity. The standard with side effects for medication will vary depending on the side effect involved. Some medications cause people to become sleepy, so those would be evaluated under the fatigue standard. Others cause blurry vision or nausea. There are a multitude of problems medications can cause. Make sure you describe whatever side effects you suffer in your application.

Probably the number one most important thing to do in your application for benefits is to understand and use qualifiers. Qualifiers limit the meanings of other words – they keep what your say from sounding absolute. One of the best qualifiers you can use is the word “sometimes.” Consider this question: Do your medications cause you any side effects? Now consider these two responses and decide which sounds more believable: “My medicine makes me sleepy, so very sleepy, so that I have to take a nap and it makes it so that I can’t concentrate on anything.” vs. “My medicine sometimes makes me sleepy, so very sleepy, so that I sometimes have to take a nap, and it makes it so that I sometimes can’t concentrate on anything.” Now which are you more willing to believe?

Qualifiers are any word or words which will limit or restrict your meaning. They keep you from being boxed in. This is extremely important. Frequently (another qualifier!) SSA will use what you say in your application and Daily Activity Questionnaire to say you aren’t credible and deny your claim. They will do this despite the fact that you may have had a hearing and gone before a Judge. The best way to sound credible is to of course be honest, but to be honest you need to realize that SSA isn’t going let any assumptions slide by in your application. They aren’t going to allow it to be a given that SOMETIMES your medications make you sleepy, oh no, you didn’t say SOMETIMES, now did you? Consequently, you want to make good use of words such as sometimes, often, frequently, and occasionally.

Don’t leave any questions blank. This is your opportunity to say something about yourself. The word on the street is that everyone has to go to a hearing, so why finish the application? First, that just isn’t true. Not everyone has to go to a hearing. About 10% of all cases are approved at the initial level. The best way to be in that 10% is to answer all the questions. Besides, why would you give up a chance to talk about your problems? This is a chance to win!

After they have received your application, SSA will telephone you to go over a few things with you. Usually they won’t have much to say except to verify a few basic questions. They really aren’t trying to trip you up here. Not this time anyway. But overall, don’t trust them. It isn’t like they get paid anything extra for denying your claim, but our government is broke. That goes double for the Social Security system. Obviously that means the pressure is on its employees to find ways to deny claims.

The next thing you do is sit back and wait. The ball is in their court.