Education and Social Security Disability

Frequently Asked Question: I have a college education. I’ve heard one’s education level impacts a claim for Social Security Disability. Does my education keep me from being eligible for disability benefits?

Answer:

The Social Security Administration (SSA) evaluates applications for SSDI and SSI disability in two ways:

  1. SSA evaluates whether the claimant’’s disability or impairment meets the disability criteria of an official disability listing in the Social Security disability handbook (often called the impairment listing manual, or the blue book), or
  2. SSA looks at whether the individual’s medical and vocational factors taken together is such that the claimant cannot work or will be unable to get a job (disability examiners refer to this as a “med-voc allowance”).

The Listings: Meeting a listing means that an impairment has to “meet or equal” the exact disability requirements for a Social Security disability allowance.  Examples may include:

  • having the required number of hospitalizations for asthma,
  • the required percentage of blockage in an artery,
  • the numbers of seizures occurring within a specific period of time, or
  • the extent of metastasis for a malignant tumor.

If an applicant meets a listing, education does not matter in the evaluation of the claim, and therefore has no bearing on the claimant’s benefits.

Education and Social Security Disability

Med-voc allowances: If the applicant’s disability or impairment does not meet or equal a listing, and the applicant cannot return to his or her former work, the applicant’s age, work history, and educational background do become relevant and part of the evaluation of the claim.  These are the claimant’s “vocational factors” as they factor into the applicant’s vocational ability (eligibility for work).  The applicant’s age, education and prior relevant work are evaluated to determine if the applicant has the capacity to perform less demanding work in a competitive work force. After all, it is an economic reality that employers themselves consider an individual’’s age, education, and work background when an individual applies for a job.

If an applicant’s vocational factors make it hard for said person to be retrained or employed, especially when consideration is given to his or her medical and/or mental impairment, then he applicant may be given a medical-vocational allowance (also called a “med-voc allowance”) for disability benefits. For example, if an applicant has less than a sixth grade education, is over 55 years old, and does not have any skills that could be transferred to other work, Social Security will not consider the applicant as eligible to be retrained to do other work.

The GRIDs: The Social Security Administration has a grid with medical-vocational rules that spell out whether claimant’s of a certain age, education, and capacity level should be considered disabled.

The medical-vocational grid. In the grid, one’s level of education often does mean the difference between a finding of disabled and not disabled. For example, if you are over 50, you’ve been limited to sedentary jobs (primarily sitting or desk jobs), and you have an education that allows you to work at a skilled job, Social Security will consider you as able to go out and learn or be trained for a new job. But if you are over 50, limited to sedentary jobs, and have an education that does not allow you to perform a skilled job, you may be considered disabled under the grid rules.

Claimants with a higher education can still get a medical-vocational allowance if his or her education did not prepare him or her to go straight into skilled work without further training, or if the claimant is capable of less than sedentary work.