Updated March 15, 2017
Cerebral palsy (CP) is a group of nervous system problems that can affect movement, speech, hearing, seeing, and thought. Cerebral palsy is caused by damage to the developing brain, usually during pregnancy, labor, or soon after birth. The damage can be caused by infection, oxygen deprivation, toxins, or head trauma.
This article discusses disability benefits for children with cerebral palsy. The rules are different for adults (anyone over 18). If you need to apply for SSI or SSDI as an adult with cerebral palsy, see our article on disability benefits for adults with cerebral palsy.
Impairments caused by cerebral palsy can include stiff muscles, muscle weakness, unusual gait, difficulties chewing, talking, hearing, or seeing, and seizures. Cerebral palsy can have mild effects on movement and intelligence or it can have extremely disruptive effects on a child’s activities, resulting in the inability to walk, epilepsy, and/or mental retardation. CP is usually not diagnosed until the child is one or two years old.
Children who suffer serious impairments from cerebral palsy may be medically eligible for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) if the child’s cerebral palsy seriously limits major activities like walking, using his or hands effectively, or communicating. To be financially eligible for SSI, the child and his or her parents (or stepparents) cannot make over the SSI income limits or own too many assets (not counting a house).
Mild cerebral palsy will not qualify for disability benefits. The SSA sets out what’s required to get disability benefits for a child with cerebral palsy in listing 111.07, which was significantly updated in 2016. To qualify for SSI under this listing, a child with cerebral palsy must have problems with two extremities that cause severe difficulty walking, standing, balancing, getting up from a seated position, or using their arms and hands effectively.
For older children, to qualify based on their difficulty walking, standing or balancing, Social Security may look at their ability to stand for a period of time, climb stairs, and/or sustain a reasonable walking pace over a sufficient distance to be able to carry out age-appropriate activities. A child who can walk effectively with a cane will generally not qualify for SSI, but a child who needs to use both arms to operate a walker may qualify; a child must be unable to walk independently without the use of a hand-held device that requires the use of both arms. For children who are too young to be expected to walk independently, Social Security may look at their functioning in comparison to others of their age.
To qualify based on the inability to use the arms effectively, for older children, Social Security may look at the child's ability to prepare simple food and feed oneself and the ability to take care of personal hygiene. For younger children, Social Security will look at things like reaching, pushing, pulling, grasping, and fingering, and whether your child can perform these tasks in an age-appropriate manner.
Note that Social Security will no longer consider whether the child's I.Q. is less than 70 when determining whether the child will qualify for benefits under the cerebral palsy listing.
Call the SSA at 800-772-1213 to set up an appointment to submit an application for SSI through your local SSA office. After you submit all the necessary financial information to the SSA, a claims examiner and medical consultant will request your child’s medical records and consider your child’s claim to make a decision on whether your child is entitled to SSI disability benefits. It can take three to five months for the SSA to determine whether your child is eligible for disability benefits.
Knowing that babies and children diagnosed with cerebral palsy often need financial help right away, the SSA grants immediate SSI benefits to children who are likely to be found medically eligible for benefits. If your child has been diagnosed with cerebral palsy and has severe difficulty speaking, coordinating hand and arm movements, or walking without braces, your child probably qualifies for these immediate “presumptive disability” benefits. If your child is an infant at an age not expected to speak or walk, his motor and communicative development will be assessed based on what is appropriate for that age. For more information, see our article on presumptive disability benefits.