Updated March 15, 2017
Cerebral palsy (CP) is a group of nervous system problems that are present from birth or soon after birth. CP is caused by damage to the brain during development and can cause problems with walking, using the arms, behavior, speech, hearing, seeing, and thinking. Some adults with cerebral palsy may experience lack of coordination and mild speech problems, and perhaps an unusual gait, but not much else, while other adults suffering from CP are unable to walk, coordinate the use of their hands, speak effectively, or hear properly.
There are several types of cerebral palsy:
Adults with cerebral palsy may be eligible for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI, which is only for those who paid taxes into the Social Security system, or in some cases for those whose spouses paid into the system) or Supplemental Security Income (SSI, which is for low-income people). To qualify, an adult’s cerebral palsy has to seriously limit activities like walking or talking. The SSA details, in an official disability listing, how significant the impairments caused by cerebral palsy must be for it to qualify as a disability that prevents an adult from working.
If your cerebral palsy does not meet the SSA’s official listing for cerebral palsy, you still might be able to get disability benefits based on a medical-vocational allowance if you can show that your cerebral palsy reduces your capacity to work so much that there are no jobs you can do, considering your education, your prior job experience, and your age (more on this below).
While many adults who get disability benefits qualified as children for SSI under cerebral palsy, it is not unusual for an adult with cerebral palsy to be applying for disability benefits for the first time.
The SSA sets out what’s required to automatically be granted disability benefits for cerebral palsy in disability listing 11.07. You must have a diagnosis of cerebral palsy plus a detailed description from your doctor of one of the following:
If you have significant difficulty communicating with others because you are hard of hearing, have a significant speech impairment or impediment, or have poor eyesight or vision problems, you may be able to fulfill this requirement.
If you are unable to walk independently without crutches, braces, or someone else's support, you would fulfill the second requirement, even if you can move around your home without support. If you are unable to reach, push, pull, lift, carry, grasp, and/or hold onto small items, you would also fulfill the second requirement. But if you can write with a pencil or cook food and feed yourself, it’s not likely you would be considered to be unable to use your arms effectively.
If you have trouble understanding, remembering, or applying information, the SSA will look for the results of an IQ test in your medical record. If you don't have IQ test results, the SSA may arrange for an IQ test. If you have emotional or social problems such as destructiveness or emotional instability, Social Security may send you to a mental status examination, performed by a psychiatrist or psychologist, unless you have already seen a psychologist or psychiatrist and there are adequate psychological records in your medical files.
If you don’t automatically qualify for disability benefits under the above listing for cerebral palsy, the SSA is required to consider the effect of your impairments on your capacity to perform routine daily activities and work. For more information, see Nolo's article on getting disability for cerebral palsy on a medical-vocational allowance.
Call the SSA at 800-772-1213 to set up an appointment to submit an application for SSI or SSDI through your local SSA office. After you submit all the necessary medical and financial information to the SSA, a claims examiner will request your medical records, review them with a medical consultant, and make a decision on whether you are entitled to disability benefits. It can take three to six months for the SSA to determine whether you are eligible for disability benefits.
If you need to apply for SSI for a child with cerebral palsy, the rules are different; see our article on how children with cerebral palsy can qualify for disability benefits.
The SSA grants immediate disability benefits to those who are likely to be found medically eligible for benefits. If you have been diagnosed with cerebral palsy and have severe difficulty speaking, coordinating hand and arm movements, or walking without braces, you probably qualify for these “presumptive disability” benefits. For more information, see our article on presumptive disability payments for cerebral palsy and other illnesses.