Qualifying for Disability Benefits for a Listed Impairment

If you have strong medical records, you may qualify for disability automatically by meeting the description of an impairment listed in the SSA Blue Book.

By , Attorney · UC Davis School of Law
Updated by Diana Chaikin, Attorney · Seattle University School of Law

The Social Security Administration (SSA) awards disability benefits to people who have medical disorders that keep them from working full-time for at least one year. Under the agency's five-step sequential evaluation process, once the SSA determines that you haven't been engaging in substantial gainful activity and your condition substantially interferes with your daily routine, you may be able to qualify for disability automatically if the condition is in the "listing of impairments."

What Medical Conditions Automatically Qualify You for Disability?

In order to qualify automatically for disability, your condition must be serious enough to be included in the SSA listings and you must have evidence in your medical record matching the requirements of the listing description. When that happens—known in Social Security lingo as "meeting a listing"—the SSA will approve your application without having to determine that your residual functional capacity rules out all work.

For example, if you've had a liver transplant, the agency doesn't have to go to the trouble of assessing your functional limitations (like not being able to lift over 10 pounds or walk more than 50 feet), comparing them with your past job duties, deciding whether you could do that work today, and figuring out if other jobs exist that you could perform. Instead, the SSA can simply approve your application automatically under listing 5.09.

Social Security Disability Listings in the "Blue Book" of Impairments

The SSA maintains a list of all of the impairments that can qualify for automatic approval. These impairments are referred to collectively as the "Blue Book" (as a nod to the historical color of the manual), the "listing of impairments," or just "the listings". The listings are updated every few years in order to reflect changes in medical technology and diagnostics.

On average, the SSA listings cover about 100 individual impairments, organized into 14 categories representing the part of the body affected by the disorder. For example, Section 4.00 of the Blue Book covers impairments of the cardiovascular system. The section contains nine specific disability listings all having to do with disorders of the heart, such as chronic heart failure or peripheral arterial disease.

What Are the Major Body Systems Covered by the SSA Listings?

Each listing in the Blue Book has a set of criteria that the SSA needs to see in your medical record before you can "meet the listing" and qualify for disability automatically. If you think you might meet a listing, you can review the section that addresses the major body system affected by your impairment.

Section 1.00 for Musculoskeletal Disorders

The SSA can evaluate impairments of the spine, bones, and joints under the following listings:

  • 1.15, Disorders of the skeletal spine resulting in compromise of a nerve root
  • 1.16, Lumbar spinal stenosis resulting in compromise of the cauda equina
  • 1.17, Reconstructive surgery or surgical arthrodesis of a major weight-bearing joint
  • 1.18, Abnormality of a major joint(s) in any extremity
  • 1.19, Pathologic fractures due to any cause
  • 1.20, Amputation due to any cause
  • 1.21, Soft tissue injury or abnormality under continuing surgical management
  • 1.22, Non-healing or complex fracture of the femur, tibia, pelvis, or one or more of the talocrural bones, and
  • 1.23, Non-healing or complex fracture of an upper extremity.

Section 2.00 for Special Senses and Speech

The SSA can evaluate abnormalities of the eye, ear, and voice under the following listings:

  • 2.02, Loss of central visual acuity
  • 2.03, Contraction of the visual field in the better eye
  • 2.04, Loss of visual efficiency, or visual impairment, in the better eye
  • 2.07, Disturbance of labyrinthine-vestibular function
  • 2.09, Loss of speech
  • 2.10, Hearing loss not treated with cochlear implantation, and
  • 2.11, Hearing loss treated with cochlear implantation.

Section 3.00 for Respiratory Disorders

The SSA can evaluate difficulty breathing under the following listings:

  • 3.02, Chronic respiratory disorders
  • 3.03, Asthma
  • 3.04, Cystic fibrosis
  • 3.07, Bronchiectasis
  • 3.09, Chronic pulmonary hypertension due to any cause
  • 3.11, Lung transplantation, and
  • 3.14, Respiratory failure.

Section 4.00 for the Cardiovascular System

The SSA can evaluate heart diseases, disorders, or illnesses under the following listings:

  • 4.02, Chronic heart failure
  • 4.04, Ischemic heart disease
  • 4.05, Recurrent arrhythmias
  • 4.06, Symptomatic congenital heart disease
  • 4.09, Heart transplant
  • 4.10, Aneurysm of aorta or major branches
  • 4.11, Chronic venous insufficiency, and
  • 4.12, Peripheral arterial disease.

Section 5.00 for Digestive Disorders

The SSA can evaluate gastrointestinal impairments under the following listings:

  • 5.02, Gastrointestinal hemorrhaging from any cause, requiring three blood transfusions
  • 5.05, Chronic liver disease
  • 5.06, Inflammatory bowel disease
  • 5.07, Intestinal failure
  • 5.08, Weight loss due to any digestive disorder
  • 5.09, Liver transplantation
  • 5.11, Small intestine transplantation, and
  • 5.12, Pancreas transplantation.

Section 6.00 for Genitourinary Disorders

The SSA can evaluate certain stages of kidney disease under the following listings:

  • 6.03, Chronic kidney disease with chronic hemodialysis or peritoneal dialysis
  • 6.04, Chronic kidney disease with kidney transplant
  • 6.05, Chronic kidney disease with impairment of kidney function
  • 6.06, Nephrotic syndrome, and
  • 6.09, Complications of chronic kidney disease.

Section 7.00 for Hematological Disorders

The SSA can evaluate abnormal blood production or functioning under the following listings:

  • 7.05, Hemolytic anemias
  • 7.08, Disorders of thrombosis and hemostasis
  • 7.10, Disorders of bone marrow failure
  • 7.17, Hematological disorders treated by bone marrow or stem cell transplantation, and
  • 7.18, Repeated complications of hematological disorders.

Section 8.00 for Skin Disorders

The SSA can evaluate skin pathologies under the following listings:

  • 8.07, Genetic photosensitivity disorders
  • 8.08, Burns, and
  • 8.09, Chronic conditions of the skin or mucous membranes.

Section 9.00 for Endocrine Disorders

The SSA evaluates endocrine (hormonal imbalance) disorders under the listing for the body part or organ affected by the imbalance. This varies by the type of gland responsible for the hormone imbalance. For example, pituitary gland disorders often lead to electrolyte imbalances in the kidneys, which the SSA would then evaluate under Section 6.00 for kidney dysfunction. Adrenal gland disorders can cause heart arrhythmias that may meet the criteria of a Section 4.00 cardiovascular listing.

Section 10.00 for Congenital Disorders That Affect Multiple Body Systems

This section contains only one listing, 10.06 for Non-mosaic Down syndrome. (Mosaic Down syndrome doesn't qualify for automatic benefits.)

Section 11.00 for Neurological Disorders

The SSA can evaluate dysfunction of the nervous system under the following listings:

  • 11.02, Epilepsy
  • 11.04, Vascular insult to the brain
  • 11.05, Benign brain tumors
  • 11.06, Parkinsonian syndrome
  • 11.07, Cerebral palsy
  • 11.08, Spinal cord disorders
  • 11.09, Multiple sclerosis
  • 11.10, Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS)
  • 11.11, Post-polio syndrome
  • 11.12, Myasthenia gravis
  • 11.13, Muscular dystrophy
  • 11.14, Peripheral neuropathy
  • 11.17, Neurodegenerative disorders of the central nervous system
  • 11.18, Traumatic brain injury
  • 11.20, Coma or persistent vegetative state, and
  • 11.22, Motor neuron disorders other than ALS.

Section 12.00 for Mental Disorders

The SSA can evaluate mental health disorders (such as mood dysregulation, anxiety, or cognitive difficulties) under the following listings:

  • 12.02, Neurocognitive disorders
  • 12.03, Schizophrenia spectrum and other psychotic disorders
  • 12.04, Depressive, bipolar and related disorders
  • 12.05, Intellectual disorder
  • 12.06, Anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorders
  • 12.07, Somatic symptom and related disorders
  • 12.08, Personality and impulse-control disorders
  • 12.10, Autism spectrum disorder
  • 12.11, Neurodevelopmental disorders
  • 12.13, Eating disorders, and
  • 12.15, Trauma- and stressor-related disorders.

Section 13.00 for Malignant Neoplastic Diseases (Cancer)

The SSA listings for cancers are organized based on the primary site of the malignancy, but they almost always require evidence that the cancer has metastasized (spread) to another region. The listings are as follows:

  • 13.02, Soft tissue cancer of the head and neck
  • 13.03, Skin
  • 13.04, Soft tissue sarcoma
  • 13.05, Lymphoma
  • 13.06, Leukemia
  • 13.07, Multiple myeloma
  • 13.08, Salivary glands
  • 13.09, Thyroid gland
  • 13.10, Breast
  • 13.11, Skeletal system
  • 13.12, Maxilla, orbit, or temporal fossa
  • 13.13, Nervous system
  • 13.14, Lungs
  • 13.15, Pleura or mediastinum
  • 13.16, Esophagus or stomach
  • 13.17, Small intestine
  • 13.18, Large intestine
  • 13.19, Liver or gallbladder
  • 13.20, Pancreas
  • 13.21, Kidneys, adrenal glands, or ureters
  • 13.22, Urinary bladder
  • 13.23, Cancers of the female genital tract
  • 13.25, Testicles
  • 13.26, Penis
  • 13.27, Primary site unknown after appropriate search
  • 13.28, Cancer treated by bone marrow or stem cell transplantation, and
  • 13.29, Malignant melanoma.

Section 14.00 for Immune System Disorders

The SSA can evaluate disorders that compromise the immune system under the following listings:

  • 14.02, Systemic lupus erythematosus
  • 14.03, Systemic vasculitis
  • 14.04, Systemic sclerosis (scleroderma)
  • 14.05, Polymyositis and dermatomyositis
  • 14.06, Undifferentiated and mixed connective tissue disease
  • 14.09, Inflammatory arthritis
  • 14.10, Sjögren's syndrome, and
  • 14.11, Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infection.

The Blue Book has separate listings for adults ("Part A") and children ("Part B"). The impairments themselves are typically the same—for example, asthma is found under listing 3.03 in Part A and listing 103.03 in Part B—but the criteria often aren't, reflecting the need for different medical standards of disability in children and adults. For more information, see our articles on getting disability benefits for children.

How to Qualify for Disability Under the SSA Listings

Receiving a diagnosis of an impairment listed in the Blue Book isn't enough to establish that you're disabled. You'll also need to provide medical evidence of the criteria set forth by the specific listing. This means submitting documents showing that you have the same symptoms, clinical signs, and laboratory findings required by the listed impairment.

What Medical Evidence Is Required to Meet the Listings?

The exact documentation you'll need to show the SSA will vary depending on the listing. For example, meeting a musculoskeletal listing typically requires having an X-ray, CT scan, or MRI showing that you have severe degeneration or other dysfunction of your spine, joints, or bones. Respiratory listings often require stress tests demonstrating a significant reduction in lung functioning, while kidney listings require lab results that show decreased levels of certain proteins in your blood.

Many listings require that you show significant functional limitations in addition to objective medical findings. Some neurological listings, for example, may be met if you're unable to perform basic motor functions independently, while mental listings typically require that you're significantly limited in interactions with other people.

Getting Disability By Equaling a Listing

The SSA sets criteria for each listing to make sure that only the most severe impairments are automatically approved for disability. But you can still qualify automatically even if you don't meet the listing requirements exactly if your medical evidence shows that your condition is "medically equivalent" to the listing criteria. This is called "equaling a listing."

You can also equal a listing if you have multiple impairments, none of which meets a listing on their own—but when taken together are equal in severity to a listed impairment. For example, you may have diabetes and back pain that combined to cause functional limitations that are essentially the same as the requirements of listing 11.14, peripheral neuropathy.

The best way to equal a listing is to get your doctor to write a medical source statement discussing why your clinical signs and symptoms meet or equal a listing in the Blue Book. The SSA values the opinions of doctors who see you regularly for your condition, so it's important to establish care with a treating physician or psychologist and follow up with routine visits. Having a "longitudinal history" of treatment strengthens your claim that your impairment is disabling.

What If You Don't Meet or Equal a Listed Impairment?

If the SSA doesn't find that you have an impairment severe enough to meet or equal a listing, it's not the end of the line. Under the sequential evaluation process, the agency must still evaluate your residual functional capacity to determine whether your limitations keep you from working. Most people who ultimately receive benefits are found disabled at this step of the process—either because an approval was directed under the "grid rules" or because their functional limitations ruled out all full-time work.

How to Use the Social Security Blue Book to Help Your Claim

You can find the entirety of the Blue Book listing of impairments online at Social Security's website. Closely read the criteria for the impairment that you think you may meet or equal. The listing requirements can get very technical, so you may want to consult your doctor. Ask your doctor if they think your condition is severe enough to meet or equal one of the listings. If they don't, ask them what evidence is missing that you'd need to satisfy the listing. For example, if you haven't had spirometry (breathing tests) for a chronic respiratory disorder, arrange to have the tests performed.

Generally, the SSA requires quite a bit of medical evidence to decide if your impairment is as severe as one listed in the Blue Book—and you're responsible for providing them with the information they need. Make sure to give the SSA the names and locations of your medical providers, and follow up with regular visits so that you can establish a longitudinal history of treatment for your condition. Keep the agency in the loop about any tests, exams, or imaging that you've undergone.The more medical evidence you can provide, the better your odds are of winning your disability claim.

Updated April 8, 2024

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