Can You Get Disability for Diabetes?

It's difficult to get disability for controlled diabetes, but most diabetic applicants suffer from related medical problems that limit their ability to work.

By , J.D. University of Missouri School of Law
Updated by Diana Chaikin, Attorney Seattle University School of Law
Updated 7/08/2022

Diabetes is a chronic condition that results when your pancreas—an organ that helps you digest food—has difficulty producing insulin, an important hormone that regulates your blood sugar. When your blood sugar becomes too high (a condition called hyperglycemia) for too long, damage can occur to your nerves, blood vessels, and organs.

Many people control their diabetes successfully with medication, exercise, and diet. But for some people, complications from uncontrolled diabetes can significantly impact their daily routine. If, despite ongoing medical treatment, your diabetes symptoms limit your ability to work full-time, you might qualify for disability benefits.

Disabling Symptoms From Diabetes and Complications

Because many people with diabetes manage their symptoms with minimal disruption to their lives, the Social Security Administration (SSA) doesn't award disability benefits based only on a diagnosis of diabetes. Applicants with diabetes are more likely to be awarded benefits due to symptoms from diabetes complications.

Complications from diabetes tend to be a result of damage caused by concentration of high blood sugar (glucose) affecting certain nerves. Below are some common disorders that can occur from diabetic nerve damage.

  • Peripheral neuropathy. Unchecked glucose levels can injure nerves in your hands and feet, causing pain or numbness. The most severe cases may require amputation.
  • Nephropathy (kidney damage). When high blood sugar damages nerves in your kidneys, they can lose their ability to filter waste products from your body.
  • Retinopathy. Poorly controlled blood sugar can damage the blood vessels in the tissue at the back of your eye, resulting in vision loss.
  • Cardiovascular disease. Over time, high levels of glucose can injure the nerves that control your heart, increasing your risk for stroke.

How Can I Get Disability Benefits for Diabetes?

If you have medical documentation of any complications from your diabetes, the SSA can find you disabled if your symptoms have prevented you from working full-time for at least one year. The SSA can find you disabled in one of two ways:

Qualifying for Disability Benefits Based on a Medical Listing

Social Security can find you disabled without having to decide that you can't work if complications from your diabetes meet or equal standards from its Listing of Impairments, a collection of disorders that the agency considers to be particularly serious. Getting disability based on a listed impairment requires a strong medical record with lots of specific evidence.

While diabetes isn't one of the listed impairments, the SSA can find you medically disabled based on the effect diabetes has on the rest of your body. Depending on the location and intensity of your symptoms, you might qualify for benefits under a listed impairment if your record contains evidence of the following:

  • Diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA) occurs when your body runs out of insulin to break down glucose for energy and uses fat cells instead. DKA is life-threatening when left untreated and almost always requires hospitalization. DKA can cause irregular heartbeat, liver damage, brain swelling, seizures, and eating disorders.
  • Chronic hyperglycemia is the cause of many of the diabetic complications mentioned above. The SSA has medical listings for peripheral neuropathy, kidney damage, vision loss, and heart disease.
  • Hypoglycemia is the opposite of hyperglycemia—your glucose levels are too low instead of too high. Severe hypoglycemia can lead to seizures and cognitive deficits.

Qualifying for Disability Benefits Based on Your Residual Functional Capacity

Even if the SSA thinks that you aren't medically disabled under a listing, you can still qualify for benefits if you can show that no jobs exist that you can do with your current limitations. The process by which Social Security determines what you can and can't do in a work environment is called assessing your residual functional capacity (RFC).

A typical RFC for applicants with diabetes will include limitations on how long you can sit, stand and walk for, as well as how much weight you can lift and carry. The SSA refers to these physical restrictions as your "exertional level." You might also have "non-exertional" limitations, such as restrictions on how often you can use your hands, or how long you can concentrate.

Social Security will use your RFC to determine whether you're currently capable of doing any of the jobs you've done in the past. Depending on your age and past work history, you'll likely have to show that you can't do an easier, less physically demanding job, such as assembling small parts. If you need to take extra breaks throughout the day to manage your blood sugar, the agency will likely find that you can't do any jobs.

Getting Proper Treatment for Your Diabetes

Your medical record is the most important part of your disability application. Social Security will look closely at your doctor's notes and any hospitalizations to see if complications from your diabetes persist despite treatment. One key word the agency will be on the lookout for is "uncontrolled" diabetes. "Uncontrolled" simply means that your blood sugar levels are too high.

The SSA wants to see that you're at least making attempts to get your blood sugar under control. If you're following your doctor's orders, taking your medication as prescribed, and sticking to a diet—but your diabetes is still uncontrolled—the agency is much more likely to find that your diabetes is disabling.

If you have gaps in your medical history or if your doctor makes a recommendation that you don't follow, the agency will want to know why. Without a good reason, Social Security can deny your claim for benefits for failure to follow prescribed treatment, because the agency doesn't know if a treatment would have worked well enough for you to do any jobs.

One of the most common reasons people with diabetes might not follow prescribed treatment is that they're unable to afford expensive insulin. Social Security recognizes that diabetes medication is often cost-prohibitive, and the agency won't hold it against you if you don't get treatment that you can't afford. Or, if you have diabetic neuropathy that progresses to the point where your doctor recommends amputation, you can decline without affecting your application for benefits.

For more information, see our article on Social Security for diabetes.

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