Social Security Disability Benefits for Dyslexia

The SSA very seldom approves disability benefits for dyslexia.

By , Attorney · UC Law San Francisco

Dyslexia, also called developmental reading disorder (DRD), is broadly defined as a learning disability that affects a person's reading comprehension. The reason the definition is so expansive is that the term "dyslexia" refers to a wide variety of linguistic difficulties rather than just the tendency to mix up the order of words and letters. In most confirmed cases, dyslexia is characterized by the inability to interpret or process symbols properly. This results in low reading comprehension.

Unlike many impairments that qualify someone for Social Security disability, dyslexia tends to have a less devastating effect on a claimant's ability to live and be successful in the working world. A dyslexia sufferer's ability to make use of adaptive methods to minimize the effect of his or her impairment makes a Social Security disability argument nearly impossible to make. This is because dyslexia generally does not prevent individuals from seeking and keeping gainful employment, even when reading and writing are daily requirements. Many successful individuals are dyslexic, and several notable historical figures are popularly believed to have been afflicted with the disorder.

How Does the Social Security Administration View Dyslexia?

The Social Security Administration (SSA) did not historically consider dyslexia severe enough a disability to fall under its strict "Blue Book" guidelines. (The Blue Book is a listing of impairments that qualify for disability benefits when they are severe.) In 2017, however, Social Security added learning disabilities to the Blue Book.

Can You Get Disability With Severe Dyslexia or Illiteracy?

For adults with dyslexia, the SSA added a brand new listing, listing 12.11, for all "neurodevelopmental disorders." This includes learning disabilities such as dyslexia and dyscalculia, ADHD/ADD, and tic disorders such as Tourette's syndrome. For children with dyslexia, the SSA added criteria for learning disabilities and tic disorders onto its listing for ADHD, listing 112.11.

The listing criteria for dyslexia for both children and adults are the same. First, the adult or child applicant must have significant difficulties learning and using academic skills. A moderate or severe form of dyslexia or illiteracy would likely fulfill this requirement.

Next, the applicant must be able to show that the dyslexia causes an "extreme" limitation in one of the following areas or a "marked" limitation in two of the following areas:

  • understanding or using information (ability to learn terms and procedures, understand instructions, answer questions and provide explanations)
  • interacting with others (ability to ask for help when needed, keep social interactions free of excessive irritability or sensitivity)
  • concentrating on tasks and maintaining pace (ability to start and finish work; ability to complete tasks in a timely manner), and
  • adapting or managing oneself (ability to regulate emotions, control behavior, be aware of risks and protect self from harm).
"Marked" means more than moderate but less than extreme; Social Security thinks of marked as seriously limiting. It is difficult to prove that dyslexia causes a marked limitation in two of the above areas, although some applicants will be able to show that dyslexia causes a marked limitation in learning and understanding. This means that this listing is very difficult to meet for dyslexia alone. (Unless a low IQ is also involved, it is almost impossible to show that an applicant with dyslexia has an extreme limitation in learning or using information, since there are ways other than reading to learn information or instructions for doing a job.)

What If You Can't Meet the Listing?

If you are an adult and Social Security finds that your dyslexia doesn't cause serious enough limitations to meet the above listing criteria, the agency will move on to see if your dyslexia is severe enough to prevent you from performing even unskilled work. When it reviews any impairment, the SSA takes into account the severity of the disorder and the degree to which it impacts your ability to work. To be approved for benefits, you would have to show that your dyslexia prevents you from doing even unskilled work that doesn't require reading or writing, such as hand-packing or dish-washing. Since dyslexia doesn't prevent this type of unskilled work, dyslexia alone isn't likely to qualify you for disability benefits.

The vast majority of claimants who suffer from dyslexia do not see their lives seriously limited by the disorder. Most people with dyslexia do not have difficulty in most social situations or a lower-than-average IQ, and those with dyslexia often excel in other areas not affected by the disorder. While dyslexia sufferers may experience some difficulty with language, they generally do not experience difficulties in other ordinary tasks. In short, it is difficult to prove a high level of impairment for dyslexia because sufferers are usually employable, unless they also have some type of physical impairment.

Even if you have a complete inability to read and write due to dyslexia, the SSA will consider you able to work unless you suffer from a physical impairment as well. In some cases, such as where the claimant is illiterate, older (over 45 or 50), and limited to sedentary or light work, the claimant might be considered disabled and be approved for disability benefits.

The SSA recognizes that while dyslexia is a serious learning disability responsible for hardship and frustration, most dyslexia sufferers can still live ordinary lives and be gainfully employed on a continual basis. As such, disability benefits are not suitable for the overwhelming majority of dyslexia claimants, and the unwritten rule is that dyslexia does not rise to the level of severity required to qualify for SSDI or SSI.

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