Social Security Removes Inability to Speak English From Disability Determination

The Social Security Administration has announced a rule change affecting disability claimants who don't speak English.

Social Security's rule change for disability claims involving the inability to speak English takes effect April 27, 2020.

The change removes a rule that made getting disability benefits easier for some older, unskilled workers who don't speak English. This change affects only workers who are age 45-54 and have a work history of unskilled jobs, a large category that includes workers like construction laborers, cleaners, some farmworkers, fast food workers, packers, and bussers.

The inability to speak English was not sufficient on its own to make someone eligible for disability. Social Security considered someone's ability to speak English as part of their education, when assessing whether they would be able to retrain for a less physically demanding job or whether they should receive disability benefits instead.

Disability claimants whose doctors limited them to desk work (for those 45-49) or light work (for those age 50-54) were granted disability benefits if they couldn't speak English. Why? Social Security recognized that most unskilled desk jobs (such as a surveillance system monitor) and many unskilled light work jobs (such as a parking lot attendant) come with language requirements.

The new rule change removes English as an educational factor. This means that, going forward, Social Security will expect unskilled workers age 45-49 to learn enough English to get a desk job instead of getting disability benefits. In contrast, unskilled workers age 50 and older who are limited to desk work will be approved for benefits whether they speak English or not (unless they have had recent job training to help them get skilled work).

Unskilled workers age 50-54 who have been limited to light work will get disability benefits under the grid rules only if they didn't graduate from high school, regardless of their English skills. Those who did graduate from high school will need to learn enough English to get a light work job rather than receive disability benefits.

This rule change doesn't mean that Social Security can no longer consider the inability to speak English on a case-by-case basis. An administrative law judge (ALJ) at an appeal hearing can take someone's language skills into account when deciding what jobs a claimant can retrain for—for instance, a claimant in most areas of the U.S. without good English skills probably couldn't do the job of store manager, because that job requires communicating with employees and the public.

Supporters of the rule change had charged that multitudes of Spanish speakers were given unfair access to disability benefits, especially in Puerto Rico. But in fact, Social Security approved only 2,487 claims in 2016 using one of the grid rules that involved the inability to speak English; 31% of these claims (778 claims) were in Puerto Rico, but 19% were in California, 11% were in New York, and 6% were in Florida.

Note that this rule change doesn't affect those age 55 and older, because the inability to speak English did not apply to them under Social Security's complex grid rules.

Effective date: April 27, 2020