Hearing loss, as well as tinnitus (ringing in the ears), is quite common among veterans. Other veterans may suffer loss of vision or other eye-related problems. Service-connected disability compensation is available for eye and ear problems.
Establishing Direct Service Connection for Hearing or Vision Problems
To qualify for disability benefits for a visual or auditory problem caused by service on the basis of direct service connection, you need to prove the condition was caused by your military duty. The following must be established to prove the disability is service-connected:
- a current diagnosis of a hearing or vision condition
- evidence of an event in service that caused the condition, and
- a medical opinion linking the current vision or hearing condition to the event in service.
Disability Ratings for Hearing Problems
Hearing problems are rated under the VA Schedule of Ratings Disabilities in Section 4.87, diagnostic codes 6200 to 6260. Common hearing issues for veterans include hearing loss and tinnitus. Other ear disabilities include:
- cancer, entitled to a 100% rating for six months following termination of cancer treatment
- peripheral vestibular disorders (inner ear problem leading to dizziness), rated at 10% for occasional dizziness or 30% when you have dizziness and sometimes stagger
- loss of one or both ears (auricles), rated at 30% for loss of one ear or 50% for loss of both, and
- perforated eardrum (the only available rating is 0%).
Hearing Loss Testing Requirements
Hearing loss as a result of loud noises that veterans were exposed to during service, such as airplane engines or gunfire, are quite common. To be deemed service-connected, hearing problems must be diagnosed by a licensed audiologist and must include two tests:
- a Maryland CNC test (measures speech recognition ability), and
- a puretone audiometric test (used to evaluate your level of hearing loss).
Make sure to tell your audiologist that you must have both tests in order to satisfy the VA's requirements for service connection. And be sure to remove any hearing aids you may have before being tested.
The VA takes the auditory test results and, using a numerical formula, determines the actual rating to assign. This formula is laid out in Section 4.85 of the Code of Federal Regulations. Typical ratings for hearing loss are 0% or 10%, but severe or profound hearing loss can qualify for a higher rating.
If You Don’t Have Hearing Loss Until You Are Older
If you don't suffer hearing loss until many years after leaving the service, don't assume that you will be denied benefits on the basis that your hearing loss is related to your age. If you can show that you were exposed to loud noise during service, you may still be able to establish service connection for your hearing loss.
Tinnitus is a noise that you hear in your ears, such as a buzzing or ringing that happens again and again, or consistently. The only rating available for tinnitus is 10%. A 10% rating will be assigned whether you have ringing in one ear or in both ears, you cannot receive a 20% rating due to tinnitus in both ears.
If you also have hearing loss, however, you are entitled to one rating for hearing loss and another for tinnitus.
Disability Ratings for Vision Problems
Vision problems are rated according to the VA Schedule of Ratings Disabilities under Section 4.97, diagnostic codes 6000 to 6091. Visual impairments for which you can receive disability compensation include:
- blurry vision
- loss of sight
- double vision
- loss of peripheral vision, and
- loss of light perception.
Vision problems are common among veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan who suffered traumatic brain injury. Loss of central or peripheral vision won’t be immediately apparent because the same blasts that cause TBIcan also impact the inside of the eye. It can be a year to three years after ocular trauma before a veteran may begin to have vision issues.
In some cases, vision issues can include hallucinations. These veterans may continue to see well but have problems including double vision, sensitivity to light, poor balance, and headaches.
Vision Testing Requirements
Veterans must be examined by a licensed optometrist or ophthalmologist. The VA requires the use of either Goldmann kinetic perimetry or automated perimetry. Perimetry is a systematic method of testing your visual ability. The test results must be reported on a Goldmann chart, so ask the examiner to include this completed chart with the examination report. Likewise, the VA requires that the examiner identify the disease or injury that caused the eye impairment.
Eye injuries are rated based on how clearly you can see, how much you can see with your peripheral vision (the visual field), and muscle function (how well each eye can move).
Special Monthly Compensation for Severe Loss
If you are eligible for service-connected disability compensation and you have entirely lost the use of at least one eye or are deaf in both ears, you are entitled to an additional monthly cash benefit called special compensation. Deafness in only one ear will not qualify you for this benefit.
How to Apply for Disability Based on Hearing or Vision Problems
You can apply for disability benefits by calling your VA regional office or by going online and filling out an Application for Veterans Compensation and/or Pension. To learn more about the application process, read Nolo's article on applying for VA disability benefits.