Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) are vital sources of income for many people with disabilities. Felize Martone, who works at the Martone Law Firm and has many years of experience representing disability claimants, offers these six expert tips for a winning SSI or SSDI application.
Gather the Right Information Ahead of Time
The Social Security Administration (SSA) needs all the information it can get about you and your disability to make a proper determination. And it’s up to you to provide it.
“It’s important to gather all the information you have ahead of time,” Martone says in an interview. “They look at the whole person, including mental and physical, so include everything that might be relevant. Even if it’s a minor thing, when you add everything together, it can make a difference.”
For example, list all the medications you take and discuss any secondary conditions like asthma. Also identify where you get medical treatment, and ask your providers to send your medical records to the SSA directly.
“If the agency doesn’t get the information it needs, it will move on,” Martone says. That will be the death knell of your application.
Of course, it’s crucial that all of the information be accurate and sent to the correct locations. “I see a lot of mistakes, like sending documents to the wrong places or not providing enough information about an injury,” she says.
Check the SSA’s Medical Listings
The medical criteria laid out in each listing are what it takes to “equal” that listing – meaning that if you meet the criteria, the SSA will find you to be disabled. “Talk to your provider and ask if you check all the boxes,” Martone says.
If you don’t match all the criteria in a medical listing, the SSA will look at your overall functioning to decide if you can perform some job that exists in the U.S. without an accommodation under the Americans With Disabilities Act. This means performing all of the job’s required tasks 40 hours a week – including, for example, concentrating and sitting for long periods of time.
Follow Your Doctor’s Instructions
To successfully apply for SSI or SSDI, you must diligently follow your doctor’s treatment instructions.
“Tell your doctor the truth about everything that’s going on with your condition, and make sure you’re doing what’s advised of you when it comes to medical treatment,” Martone says. “The SSA wants you to comply with your treatment course. They want you to be on your best behavior to make sure you’re trying to get better.”
Don’t Say You Can’t Work – Even If You Can’t
Although it may be tempting, don’t claim on your SSI or SSDI application that you can’t work – even if it’s true. The SSA wants to decide that for itself.
“I see doctors who want to help a patient explaining that the patient can’t work anymore,” Martone says. “That is detrimental to a disability case.”
Instead, ask your doctor to explain specifically how your disability limits your day-to-day functioning. Discuss things like how far you can walk, how long you can sit, etc. If these limitations are severe enough, they will be good evidence that you’re unable to work.
“The SSA is not in your shoes yet, so you need to give them as much information as you can so they understand,” she says.
It can help to include letters from former employers or coworkers about what they observed when you were working that affected your ability to do your job, like frequently coming in late or calling in sick because of medical problems or doctor appointments.
Find Helpful Witnesses
Along the same lines, think about who else knows you and can tell the SSA about how your disability has affected your day-to-day functioning. They can include family, friends, and neighbors – some of which the SSA will probably contact on its own.
“Make sure these people are up to date so they can give the SSA good information when they get forms from the agency,” Martone says. That information should include what they see you doing, help you with, etc.
Stick With It, Even If You’re Initially Denied
Unfortunately, about 80% of SSI and SSDI applications are rejected at first. That’s because there are usually over a million applications pending at once, and the SSA is chronically underfunded and understaffed.
However, you can – and definitely should – appeal an initial rejection. At this point, Martone highly recommends getting an attorney. “Social Security laws are dense and very difficult to navigate, including understanding the criteria that will affect the decision,” she says.
If you appeal, you will receive a hearing before an administrative law judge who will make the final determination. Your attorney will line up witnesses to testify on your behalf, and the SSA will bring its own witnesses to say what jobs are allegedly available to you (and thus why your claim supposedly should be denied).
Nationally, about 60 percent of SSI and SSDI applicants win on appeal. But even when a claimant is successful, the entire process takes about three to five years, so file your initial application as soon as you can.
“Some people make the mistake of stopping work and waiting a while, thinking they will get better,” Martone says. “That’s not a good idea.”
How to Apply for SSI
- Little or no income, and
- Little or no resources, and
- A disability, blindness, or are age 65 or older.
How much SSI you can get every month depends on your income, living situation, possessions, and other factors.
How to Apply for SSDI
You can apply for SSDI online here. If you can’t complete the online application, call toll-free at 1-800-772-1213 between 8:00 a.m. and 7:00 p.m. Eastern time.
SSDI benefits are based on your own earnings history. You can use the online application to apply for SSDI benefits if you:
- Are age 18 or older;
- Are not currently receiving benefits on your own Social Security record;
- Are unable to work because of a medical condition that’s expected to last at least 12 months or result in death; and
- Have not been denied disability benefits in the last 60 days.
To apply for SSDI:
- Print and review the Adult Disability Checklist. It will help you gather the information you need to complete the application.
- Complete the Disability Benefit Application.
- Complete the Medical Release Form.
The information and documents you need are available in the FAQ on this page.
The SSA offers a Disability Starter Kit that will help you get ready for your disability interview or online application. Separate kits are available for adults and children under age 18. They explain the specific documents and other information that SSA wants with your application, along with general information about the agency’s disability programs and its decision-making process.
Other helpful resources:
- Disability Evaluation Under Social Security (Also known as The Blue Book) – Medical criteria for evaluating Social Security disability claims
- Social Security Disability Benefits
- Benefits For Children With Disabilities
- What You Need To Know When You Get Disability Benefits
- Working While Disabled…How We Can Help
- Receiving Your Benefits By Direct Deposit
- Disability Planner
Have you successfully applied for SSI or SSDI? Do you have any tips to share? Please let us know in the comments.