One of the most important factors the Social Security Administration (SSA) looks for when determining whether you'll win your disability case is whether your self-reported symptoms are consistent with objective medical evidence. Because many symptoms—particularly complaints of pain or mental distress—are fundamentally subjective, the SSA needs to see that they're in line with evidence like lab tests and doctor's notes.
In the past, Social Security decided whether an applicant's statements of subjective symptoms were "credible," a term which implied that the agency was making a character judgment. But the vast majority of people who are denied disability benefits aren't exaggerating or making it up—they just don't have the right evidence to show they can't do any jobs.
Since releasing Social Security Ruling 16-3p, the SSA no longer formally assesses credibility when deciding disability claims, but it's still a factor in a broader sense. You'll need to have believably disabling functional limitations in order to win a Social Security disability case. Below are a few ways you can show the agency that your symptoms legitimately result in you being unable to work.
By its nature, pain is highly individualized and subjective. A diagnosis of moderate spinal stenosis can cause severe, debilitating pain in one person, while another person with the same diagnosis might not feel any pain.
Social Security acknowledges that people experience pain differently, and that pain can often feel more intense than what's shown by the objective medical evidence alone. The agency considers limitations from your pain to the extent they're consistent with your medical records, so diligently documenting your treatment and symptoms is important to winning your disability case.
Prepare to answer questions about your limitations from an administrative law judge (ALJ) at a disability court case ("hearing"), and point to specific instances in your medical records to support your answers. For example:
You'll probably have to sit for at least an hour at your disability hearing, so if extended sitting causes you discomfort, don't just grin and bear it. Tell the judge that you're in pain, and ask to stand up and walk around. Judges won't mind making it easier for you to finish the hearing, and your body language can show the ALJ what movements you have difficulty with.
Much like pain symptoms, mental health disorders can be hard to document objectively. But symptoms of mental conditions can have physical manifestations. If you're lacking the motivation to do household chores due to depression, for example, you should mention this in your activities of daily living questionnaire. Additionally, you should have counseling or therapy notes that document your mood (such as whether you're withdrawn, angry, or tearful).
If you have a consistent record of employment throughout your adult life, don't hesitate to emphasize that fact to the ALJ during your hearing. Because it's unlikely that somebody who's been working for many years would want to give up a steady income for relatively modest Social Security benefits, a strong work history can sway a judge who might be on the fence about your disability case.
A strong work history tends to show the ALJ that you're not engaged in "benefit-seeking," or trying to take advantage of the system. You want the judge to know that you would work if you possibly could. The ALJ has access to your earnings and employment history, but only for the last 15 years, so if you've worked longer, be sure to point it out. If you enjoyed working and wish that you could return to your previous jobs, you might mention that as well.
Having a letter from a friend, family member, or former employer who has seen your limitations first-hand can help strengthen your disability case. A former boss might indicate that you were let go because you weren't able to lift boxes at your job, or that you frequently showed up late, took unscheduled breaks, or missed days. If you couldn't complete basic job duties at your past work, the ALJ is more likely to find that you couldn't do the same at another job.
If you're obtaining a "third-party statement" from a former co-worker, friend, or family member, make sure it describes only direct interactions they've had with you. For example, if you struggle with severe anxiety, your cousin or neighbor might mention that they do the grocery shopping for you because you can't leave your house. Such statements can help confirm your self-reported symptoms and make your limitations more believable to the ALJ.
Disability applicants often have "good days" when their symptoms are mild (or even non-existent) and "bad days" when their symptoms are especially severe. If this applies to you, make sure you state it on both your initial application for benefits and at your hearing.
Having documentation of "good" and "bad" days is important because it often prevents the SSA from finding that your symptoms are inconsistent with your daily activities. For example, say that you have limitations from pain caused by fibromyalgia, but for one or two days per week you are relatively pain-free. On those "good days," you can perform household chores, go shopping, and do some yard work. The rest of the week, you're bedridden with intense pain and unable to shower or get dressed.
If you only let Social Security know about what you're able to do on your good days, the ALJ is likely going to think "Well, if you can do the dishes and grocery shop, you can probably work as well." But if you clarify that you can only do those activities on good days—and you only have one good day per week—the judge won't find your limitations inconsistent with being disabled.
You don't have to be in an iron lung in order to get disability benefits, and judges are skeptical of unrealistic limitations (such as not being able to lift anything, no matter how small). Don't embellish your symptoms, but don't downplay them, either.
If the ALJ asks you a question about an activity you can do, put the activity into context. Most people can honestly answer "Yes" when asked if they can dress themselves. But if you struggle to tie your shoes because you have trouble bending over, or if your depression makes it hard for you to care about changing clothes, you should let the judge know.
You can learn more from our article on pitfalls to avoid at your Social Security disability hearing.
Most SSDI/SSI applicants who are ultimately awarded benefits don't win their disability case until after a hearing with an ALJ. Nationally, around 50% of hearings result in a favorable decision (approval of benefits), but this varies significantly by region and doesn't mean that an individual application has a 50% chance of success. For more information, see our article on your chances of winning a Social Security disability appeal.
Updated March 10, 2023
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