Does Your Education Level Affect Your Social Security Disability Claim?

In some cases, the amount of education you have can affect whether you get Social Security or SSI disability.

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Question

I've heard education matters for Social Security Disability. I have some college education. Does that mean I'm not eligible for disability benefits?

Answer

The Social Security Administration (SSA) evaluates applicants for disability in two ways:

  • whether an individual’'s disability or impairment meets the disability criteria of an official disability listing in the Social Security disability handbook (often referred to as the impairment listing manual, or the blue book), or
  • whether the individual's medical and vocational factors taken together means he or she cannot work or be able to get a job (disability examiners refer to this as a med-voc allowance).

Listings. Meeting a listing means that an impairment has to “meet or equal” the exact disability criteria for a Social Security disability allowance, such as the number of hospitalizations for asthma, the percentage of blockage in an artery, the numbers of seizures occurring within a designated period, or the extent of metastasis for a malignant tumor. If an applicant meets a listing, education has no bearing on his or her benefits.

Med-voc allowances. If an applicant's disability or impairment doesn't meet or equal a listing, and the applicant can't return to his or her former work, the applicant's age, work history, and educational background are evaluated to determine if an individual has the capacity to perform less demanding work in a competitive work force. After all, employers themselves consider an individual’'s age, education, and work background when they apply for a job. 

Applicants whose vocational factors make it hard for an individual to be retrained or employed, especially when consideration is given to their medical and/or mental impairment, may be given a medical-vocational allowance for disability benefits. For instance, if an applicant has less than a sixth grade education, is over 55 years old, and has no skills that could be transferred to other work, Social Security won't consider the applicant able to be retrained to do other work.

The SSA has a grid with medical-vocational rules that spell out whether people of a certain age, education, and capacity level should be considered disabled.

The medical-vocational grid. In the grid, education often means the difference between a finding of disabled and not disabled. For instance, if you are over 50, you've been limited to sedentary jobs, and you are considered to have an education that allows you to work at a skilled job, you'll be expected to go out and learn or be trained for a new job. But if you are over 50, limited to sedentary jobs, and have an education that doesn't allow you to perform a skilled job, you'll be considered disabled. 

Applicants with a higher education can still get a medical-vocational allowance if their education didn't prepare them to go straight into skilled work without further training -- or if they're capable of less than sedentary work

Learn more about med-voc allowances.

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