People diagnosed with intellectual disabilities are often able to successfully work full time. However, if an intellectually disabled person is unable to maintain full-time employment because of her disability, he or she may be eligible for disability benefits from the Social Security Administration (SSA).
What Are the Criteria for Getting Disability Based on IQ?
A person can be automatically approved for disability based on intellectual disability if he or she meets all of the SSA’s listing criteria. (The SSA changed its listing for "mental retardation" to "intellectual disability" in 2013.)
Adults Who Had Low IQ as Children
If a person’s intellectual disability was evident before he or she turned 22 years old, the individual must fulfill one of the following requirements to qualify for disability.
- Have an IQ below 60
- Have an IQ of 60-70 along with either a mental or physical condition that makes it extremely difficult to do work-related activities, or
- Have an IQ of 60-70 that results in at least two of the following:
- Serious difficulty performing activities of daily living (such as cooking, cleaning, taking a bus, or paying bills)
- Serious difficulty interacting with others
- Serious difficulty with focus, concentration, and completing tasks in an acceptable amount of time, or
- Repeated increases in symptoms from time to time (periods of decompensation).
If the individual is unable to follow directions to the extent that he or she cannot undergo an IQ test, he or she must require help with self-care (such as eating, drinking, personal hygiene, and dressing).
Adults Who Suffer a Loss of Mental Functioning
Intellectual disabilities can also result from organic mental disorders. Some common causes of organic mental disorders are traumatic brain injuries, degenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s or multiple sclerosis, and oxygen deprivation. If you suffer from an organic mental disorder that has affected your IQ, you can be automatically approved for disability if you meet the following requirements:
- Have experienced at least a 15 point IQ drop from before you developed your organic mental disorder
- Are experiencing at least two of the following:
- Serious difficulty performing activities of daily living (such as cooking, cleaning, taking a bus or paying bills)
- Serious difficulty interacting with others
- Serious difficulty with concentration or completing tasks in an acceptable amount of time, or
- Recurrent and lengthy increases in symptoms that make it difficult to perform activities of daily living, interact with others or focus or complete tasks in an acceptable amount of time.
What Medical Evidence Is Needed?
Evidence should include the results of any psychological testing, detailed doctors' reports that discuss mental limitations and any physical impairments, a description of any jobs held in the past, results from any IQ tests, and perhaps a mental status examination.
With regards to IQ tests, the SSA is specific about what type of tests it will consider, how the tests should be administered, who may administer the tests, and what additional information must be provided with test scores. If the SSA questions whether or not an applicant's IQ test results are accurate, it may have the applicant take an IQ test given by one of its doctors.
If the individual's IQ is between 60 and 70, the individual's doctor (or an SSA doctor) must perform a mental status exam and provide the results to the SSA. A mental status exam is a report that describes the doctor’s observations about the individual's physical appearance, mood, knowledge of basic facts, and ability to focus, concentrate, and remember things.
For people who are unable to take the IQ test, the SSA will need records from caregivers that detail the level of care the individual needs. If the individual is cared for at home, the caregiver should provide evidence of the assistance given to the individual. This can include prescriptions for specialized medical equipment, information about the applicant's participation in specialized therapy, and a description of the caregiver's role in the applicant's daily life.
In addition, the applicant will need to show the SSA that the intellectual disability began during the developmental years, specifically before 22 years old. The SSA will look at whether the applicant was enrolled in an individual educational plan or special education classes, and will look at any other relevant records from elementary, middle, or high school to make this determination. School records can be requested by filling out a simple form provided to you by the school district.
If the applicant also suffers from physical conditions that, combined with low IQ, prevent the individual from working, the SSA will also need medical records that describe the physical impairment and how it interferes with the individual's ability to work. Examples of the records needed are MRI reports, x-rays, lab results, doctors’ reports, and medication lists.
What If I Don’t Meet the Listing Requirements?
If your IQ does not meet the listing requirements for automatic approval under intellectual disability or organic mental disorders, you may still qualify for disability benefits if your IQ is close to those discussed above. (However, disability benefits are rarely granted to those with IQs above 84.)
But the SSA often finds that most people can do simple repetitive tasks even with a lower than average IQ, so you will need to prove to the SSA that you have other significant impairments that combined with your IQ prevent you from working.
If your IQ is borderline, the SSA will require you to undergo a mental residual function capacity assessment (MRFC). An MRFC examines your mental and emotional ability to do simple, unskilled jobs. Some work-related functions that the SSA will consider are how well you get along with others, whether you can follow simple instructions, whether you are able to accept direction from authority, whether you are reliable, and how your IQ affects your ability to focus on your job and complete it is a timely fashion.
The SSA will then consider the MRFC prepared by your doctor or the SSA doctor to determine whether you can do unskilled work. If you cannot, you will be granted disability benefits.
For disability benefits for dementia that is not necessarily related to a loss of IQ, see our article on disability benefits for dementia.