Disability Benefits for Low IQ

The SSA will grant disability benefits based on low IQ scores only if an applicant also has difficulty with work-related functioning.

By , Attorney · UC Law San Francisco

People diagnosed with an intellectual disability, including low IQ, are often able to successfully work full time. When 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?

The SSA has a disability listing for "intellectual disorder" (previously it used the term "intellectual disability," and before that, "mental retardation"). A person can be automatically approved for disability based on low IQ if he or she meets all of the criteria in the SSA's listing.

In addition to a low IQ, the applicant must have deficits in one or more areas of functioning, like social interactions, comprehension, concentration, or managing him or herself. Note that those who have a full scale, performance, or verbal IQ score of 71 above won't qualify for benefits under the intellectual disorder listing (but could still qualify for benefits—see below).

Here's what the listing now requires (it was updated significantly in 2017):

  • The applicant's intellectual disability must have been evident before he or she turned 22 years old.
  • The applicant must have a full scale IQ score of 70 or below, or a full scale IQ score of 71-75 with a verbal or performance score of 70 or below.
  • The applicant must have an extreme limitation in one of the following areas, or a "marked" (severe) limitation in two of the following areas:
    • understanding and remembering information (learning new things, applying new knowledge to tasks, ability to understand instructions)
    • interacting with others using socially appropriate behaviors
    • concentrating on and finishing tasks, and/or
    • being able to manage oneself (knowing what is acceptable work performance, maintaining personal hygiene and attire appropriate to a work setting, being aware of normal hazards and taking appropriate precautions).

Those Who Are Unable to Take an IQ Test

Applicants who are unable to follow directions to the extent that they cannot undergo IQ testing can qualify for benefits under this listing if they can show they are dependent upon others for personal needs (for example, dressing, bathing, or eating).

Those Who Suffered a Loss of Mental Functioning

Intellectual disabilities can also result from traumatic brain injuries or degenerative diseases like Alzheimer's or multiple sclerosis. Those whose cognitive deficits appeared after age 22 would be evaluated under the listing for neurocognitive disorders.

What Medical Evidence Is Needed?

You or your doctor should submit 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 and results from IQ tests.

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 could have the applicant take an IQ test given by one of its doctors.

For people who are unable to take an 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, before 22 years old. The SSA will look at whether the applicant was enrolled in an individual educational program (IEP) 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 disorder, you could possibly still qualify for disability benefits if your IQ is close to those discussed above. However, the SSA often finds that most people can do simple repetitive tasks even with a lower than average IQ, so you may need to prove to the SSA that you have other significant impairments that combined with your IQ prevent you from working. Note that disability benefits are rarely granted on the basis of IQ to those with IQs above 84.

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.

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