Getting Disability Benefits for Hearing Loss

It can be very difficult to get Social Security disability benefits based solely on hearing loss, even if it is profound.

By , J.D. · University of Missouri School of Law

Profound hearing loss can greatly limit or even eliminate a person's ability to work. If your hearing loss is so severe that it prevents you from performing a full-time job, you may qualify for Social Security disability benefits.

In deciding a disability case, the Social Security Administration (SSA) requires objective medical evidence to establish the existence and severity of any medical impairment. Those with hearing loss should provide the SSA with records of hearing testing administered by an audiologist or an otolaryngologist, sometimes called an ear, nose, and throat (ENT) doctor. If you can't afford audiometric testing prior to your disability hearing, you or your attorney should request that Social Security arrange a free consultative examination with an audiologist or ENT.

Tests for Measuring Hearing Loss

There are several different ways to measure hearing loss: pure-tone air conduction testing, pure-tone bone conduction testing, and speech recognition testing. All tests are performed without the use of a hearing aid. Pure-tone air conduction testing is the most common and is generally considered the best indicator of a person's ability to hear. This test, which transmits a series of beeps through the subject's headphones to elicit a response, is designed to measure a person's hearing threshold. The hearing threshold is the minimum decibel level required for you to hear a sound.

Pure-tone air conduction testing is often performed in tandem with bone conduction testing. A bone conduction test measures cochlear (inner-ear) hearing by sending gentle electrical signals to the back of the skull through a headset. Despite the use of (very mild) electrical vibrations, this test is completely painless.

Speech recognition testing is not often a part of routine audiology testing, but it can be extraordinary helpful in a disability case. That's because it's generally much harder for an individual to distinguish a word than it is to simply hear a tone at the same decibel level. A failure to accurately recognize speech can prevent you from performing a wide range of jobs, particularly those that require you to interact with co-workers or the general public.

The Blue Book Listings for Hearing Loss

Social Security has two different Blue Book listings for hearing loss. The first, Listing 2.10, applies to those who haven't received a cochlear implant. An individual can meet this listing if either of the following are satisfied:

  • Your average air conduction hearing threshold is more than 89 decibels in the better ear, and average bone conduction hearing threshold is more than 60 decibels in the better ear, or
  • Your score on a speech discrimination test is 40% or worse in the better ear.
The two-pronged approach of this listing reflects the variety of ways that hearing can be measured. Note that it is rare even for individuals with profound hearing loss to meet either part of this listing, particularly the first prong. Most individuals with hearing loss or partial deafness who qualify for disability benefits do so by getting a medical-vocational allowance (see below)
Listing 2.11 applies to those with cochlear implants. Under this listing, an individual is automatically disabled for one year after implantation of an implant. If more than a year has elapsed, a word recognition score of 60% or less on the HINT (Hearing in Noise Test) will meet the listing.

Hearing Loss and Your RFC

If your condition doesn't meet the requirements of a listing, you can still be approved for benefits based on a "medical-vocational allowance." In fact, this is by far the most common method of approval for successful claimants.

The SSA considers your age, educational level, vocational history, and residual functional capacity (RFC) to determine whether you can perform your past work or any other jobs in the national economy. Your RFC is Social Security's assessment of what you can do despite your impairments.

Poor hearing can impose functional limitations that prevent a person from performing a wide variety of jobs. For example, a noisy job at a factory could present a substantial risk of further hearing loss. At the other end of the spectrum, a relatively quiet job in an office would probably require frequent communication with co-workers and supervisors.

It can be somewhat difficult for individuals with hearing loss that doesn't meet the listing to qualify for benefits when hearing loss is their sole impairment. Thus, you should make sure that Social Security is aware of all your impairments, both severe and non-severe, and that you provide SSA with all your relevant medical records.

If poor hearing is keeping you from performing full-time work, fill out this evaluation form to find an attorney to assist with your disability claim.

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