How Social Security Uses a Grid of Medical-Vocational Rules to Decide Disability

The grids may get older disability applicants without useful job skills approved for Social Security disability.

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If you are 50 years old or older when applying for Social Security disability, it may be easier for you to get approved for disability benefits than it is for a younger person. This is because the Social Security Administration (SSA) believes it is harder for an older person to learn a new job skill or to make the transition into a new work place. The SSA refers to this as making a “vocational adjustment.”

To account for the difficulty older claimants may have making vocational adjustments, the SSA has something called the “grid rules” it uses to decide some disability claims. The grid rules are one way you can get approved for disability benefits through a medical-vocational allowance. Social Security generally uses the grid rules (commonly referred to as the “grids") only after it has determined that you can't do the jobs you've done in the recent past.

Grid Factors

These grid rules use the following factors to determine whether an applicant is disabled:

  • applicant's age
  • applicant's education level
  • the skill level of the applicant's past work
  • whether the applicant learned any skills that can be used in a different job, and
  • the applicant's residual functional capacity (RFC).

Let's take a look at each of these factors and see why, and how, they may affect your claim.

Your Age

For the purposes of the grids, the SSA divides applicants into the following age groups:

  • younger individuals (18 through 49)
  • closely approaching advanced age (50 to 54)
  • advanced age (55 and over), and
  • closely approaching retirement age (60 and over).

The older the applicant is, the easier it is to get approved using the grids.

Your Education Level

The lower your education level, the more likely you are to get approved under the grids. This is because the SSA knows it is harder for people with little education to find jobs they are qualified to do. Here is how the SSA divides education levels:

  • high school graduate or more, plus recent training for skilled work
  • high school graduate or more, without recent training for skilled work
  • limited education (generally 11th grade and below), and
  • illiterate or unable to communicate in English.

If you graduated high school and recently completed a post-secondary training program, your education level is a high school graduate or more with training for skilled work. For example, in one case, a 55-year-old woman with a high-school diploma was certified as a nail-technician shortly before she injured her back. The SSA denied her disability benefits because the grids say that anyone with recent training that would provide entry for skilled work is not disabled.

Your Past Work Experience

For purposes of the grids, the SSA classifies jobs as unskilled, semi-skilled, and skilled. Those with a history of only unskilled work are more likely to be found disabled under the grids.

The SSA will classify your past jobs based on how you describe them and how the Department of Labor DOL) classifies them. An unskilled job, for example, might be a sorter at a factory. An example of a semi-skilled job is a waitress. An example of a skilled job is a paralegal. To determine a job's skill level, the DOL considers factors such how long it takes to learn a job and whether the job requires specialized education.

Whether You Have Skills That Can Transfer to a New Job

If your past work was skilled or semi-skilled, the SSA will consider whether you learned any skills that could be used in another position (called transferable skills). The more transferable skills you have, the more likely it is that the SSA will say there is other work you can do, and the harder it is to win your disability claim.

Note that even though a job may be classified as skilled, the skills learned in that job may be so specific that youcan’t use them in another position (for example, seamstress work). The SSA won't classify skills like these as transferable.

Your Residual Functional Capacity

Your residual functional capacity (RFC) is your remaining ability to do work on a regular and sustained basis (full-time). The SSA will use the objective medical evidence you or your doctor has submitted to do a detailed assessment of your ability to do certain job-related activities like standing, walking, lifting, carrying, and pushing. The SSA will give you an RFC for:

  • sedentary work
  • light work
  • medium work,
  • heavy work, or
  • very heavy work.

Generally, the higher (heavier) your RFC, the more difficult it will be to get approved under the grids.

Using the Grids

To see how the SSA would apply the grids to your case, first find the table that addresses your RFC level, then find the row that describes your age group, educational level, and your past work experience. The final column shows how the SSA will decide your claim based on these factors. Here are two excerpts from the grids.

RFC for SEDENTARY WORK for Claimant Approaching Advanced Age (50-54)

Education

Skill Level

Decision

Limited or less

Unskilled or none

Disabled

Limited or less

Skilled or semiskilled, skills not transferable

Disabled

Limited or less

Skilled or semiskilled, skills transferable

Not disabled

High school graduate or more-no training for direct entry into skilled work

Unskilled or none

Disabled

High school graduate or more, with training for direct entry into skilled work

Unskilled or none

Not disabled

High school graduate or more, but no training for direct entry into skilled work

Skilled or semiskilled, skills not transferable

Disabled

High school graduate or more, but no training for direct entry into skilled work

Skilled or semiskilled, skills transferable

Not disabled

High school graduate or more, with training for direct entry into skilled work

Skilled or semiskilled, skills not transferable

Not disabled

 

RFC for LIGHT WORK for Claimant Approaching Advanced Age (50-54)

 

Skill Level

Decision

Illiterate or unable to communicate in English

Unskilled or none

Disabled

Limited or less (at least literate and able to communicate in English)

Unskilled or none

Not disabled

Limited or less

Skilled or semiskilled, skills not transferable

Not disabled

Limited or less

Skilled or semiskilled, skills transferable

Not disabled

High school graduate or more

Unskilled or none

Not disabled

High school graduate or more

Skilled or semiskilled, skills not transferable

Not disabled

High school graduate or more

Skilled or semiskilled, skills transferable

Not disabled

Here are two examples of how the SSA would apply the above sets of grid rules.

  • The claimant was a 52-year-old woman who filed for disability based on type-2 diabetes and heart disease. She had a high-school education. Her past work was as a sorter in a factory, which the SSA concluded was unskilled work. Despite her condition, the SSA decided she had an RFC for sedentary work. The SSA used the sets of grid rules for sedentary work, approaching advanced age. Because she had only unskilled work experience and no recent job training, the SSA found her disabled.
  • The claimant was a 50-year-old male with a high-school education who filed for disability based on a back injury. His past work was as a CDL truck driver, which the SSA classified as semi-skilled work. The SSA also determined that he had acquired skills he could use in another position (transferable skills). The SSA used the set of grid rules for light work, approaching advanced age. The SSA concluded that, despite his condition, the claimant still had the ability to do light work, since he had job skills that could be transferred to less physically demanding work.

RFC for Heavy or Very Heavy Work

If you have an RFC for heavy or very heavy work, the SSA won’t use the grid rules. This is because because if you can do heavy or very heavy work, you can also do medium, light, and sedentary jobs, which means that there is a wide range of work you can do.

Other Ways to Get Approved for Disability Benefits

If you have impairments that aren’t related to your physical capacity, such as mental health issues or trouble using your hands and fingers (non-exertional limitations), you may be able to get approved even though the grid rules say someone in your situation is not disabled. You may also be able to win if you have more than one medical condition. Unfortunately, many applicants in the above situations get denied and need to appeal to win benefits. For more information, see our section on appealing common reasons for disability denial.

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