Applying for Disability at Age 50-54 With Social Security's Medical-Vocational Grids

If you have an RFC for sedentary work and you are between the ages of 50-54, you could be approved for disability benefits.

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Gavel and Scales

When you apply for disability, if the Social Security Administration (SSA) decides your condition doesn't meet a disability listing and you can't do your past job, the SSA will refer to the “grid rules” for those between the ages of 50 and 54 to decide if you are disabled. The grids are a series of tables that take into account several factors before pointing to a finding of disabled or not disabled.

However, using the grids is only one way to win, or lose, a claim at this point in the evaluation; even if the grid directs a finding of "not disabled," a claimant aged 50-54 may still be approved. Below we discuss some strategies for 50-54 year olds to win their claim even if they are found "not disabled" based on the grids.

Claimants Who Are Aged 50-54

In relation to the grid rules, the SSA categorizes people who are aged 50-54 as “closely approaching advanced aged.” The SSA has specific rules for those who are in this age group. Before continuing, please read our overview article on using the grid rules to learn the details of what the grids take into account (such as RFC, education, skill set, and whether your skills are transferable) and to understand the nuances of each factor.

For each age group, the grid is divided by exertional levels; that is, what level of work an applicant's RFC (residual functional capacity assessment) states that an applicant can do. The different RFC levels are for work at the following levels:

  • sedentary
  • light
  • medium
  • heavy, and
  • very heavy.

Using the Grids

Below are the grid rules for people between the age of 50 and 54. To see how the SSA would decide your case based on the grids, first find the table for your RFC level. Next, find the row that describes your education level and previous work experience. The third column shows the decision the SSA will make based on those two factors.

RFC for SEDENTARY WORK

Education

Skill Level

Decision

Completed 11 grade or less

Unskilled work or no work

Disabled

Completed 11 grade or less

Skilled or semiskilled work but skills are not transferable

Disabled

Completed 11 grade or less

Skilled or semiskilled work with transferable skills

Not disabled

High school graduate (or GED) or higher

Unskilled work or no work

Disabled

High school graduate (or GED) or higher

Skilled or semiskilled work but skills not transferable

Disabled

High school graduate (or GED) or higher

Skilled or semiskilled work with transferable skills

Not disabled

Recent education that provides for direct entry into skilled work (high school graduate or more)

Unskilled work or no work

Not disabled

Recent education that provides for direct entry into skilled work (high school graduate or higher)

Skilled or semiskilled work, whether skills are transferable or not

Not disabled

 

RFC for LIGHT WORK

Education

Skill Level

Decision

Illiterate or unable to communicate in English

Unskilled work or no work

Disabled

Completed 11 grade or less

Unskilled work or no work

Not disabled

Completed 11 grade or less

Skilled or semiskilled work but skills not transferable

Not disabled

Completed 11 grade or less

Skilled or semiskilled work with transferable skills

Not disabled

High school graduate or higher

Unskilled work or no work

Not disabled

High school graduate or higher

Skilled or semiskilled work but skills not transferable

Not disabled

High school graduate or higher

Skilled or semiskilled with transferable skills

Not disabled

 

RFC for MEDIUM WORK

Education

Skill Level

Decision

Completed 11 grade or less

Unskilled work or no work

Not disabled

Completed 11 grade or less

Skilled or semiskilled work but skills not transferable

Not disabled

Completed 11 grade or less

Skilled or semiskilled work with transferable skills

Not disabled

High school graduate or higher

Unskilled work or no work

Not disabled

High school graduate or higher

Skilled or semiskilled work but skills not transferable

Not disabled

High school graduate or higher

Skilled or semiskilled work with transferable skills

Not disabled

Recent education that provides for direct entry into skilled work (high school graduate or higher)

Skilled or semiskilled work whether or not skills are transferable

Not disabled

RFC for Heavy Work

If your RFC is for heavy work or very heavy work, and you are age 50-54, it will be hard to win your claim based on a physical impairment alone. This is because if you can do heavy work, the SSA will conclude that you can perform medium and light work as well, which leaves many jobs open for you to do. Even if you are affected by environmental factors such as smoke, fumes, dust, temperature, or noise, you will still be denied, since there are many jobs that could be still found.

However, if you can prove to the SSA that you have certain non-exertional impairments that impact your job (such as trouble concentrating due to anxiety or the complete inability to stoop because of a back problem), you could still win your claim. For more information, see our articles on mental limitations and non-exertional impairments.

Examples of Using the Grids for Ages 50-54

Here are examples of where a person aged 50-54 can be approved for disability benefits based on the grids.

  • In one case, a 53-year-old woman applied for disability based on diabetic neuropathy. She had a high-school education. Her past work was as a seamstress. The SSA determined that the claimant had the RFC to perform sedentary work. However, the SSA determined that, although her seamstress work was skills, she didn't have any transferable skills. Therefore, the grids directed a finding of disabled, and the claimant was approved.
  • In another case, a 52-year-old man applied for disability based on heart disease, controlled high blood pressure, and lower back-pain. The SSA determined that based on the medical evidence, he still had the RFC to do light work. The claimant’s past work was as an unskilled laborer but the claimant was unable to read or write. Because of the applicant's illiteracy, the grids directed a finding of disabled. (Note that only illiteracy or inability to speak English will get you benefits via the grids if you are between 50 and 54 and your RFC is for light work.)

Even for a claimant aged 50-54, the grids will frequently direct a finding of not disabled.

  • In one case, a 50-year-old man filed for disability based on a knee replacement and arthritis in his shoulders and the SSA determined he had the RFC to perform sedentary work. The claimant had a culinary degree, and his past work was as a kitchen manager. The SSA determined that he had transferable skills from his past work that included the ability to manage staff and the ability to communicate effectively in both writing and speaking. Based on these factors, the grids directed a finding of not disabled.
  • In another case, a 51-year-old man filed for disability based on severe migraines. The SSA determined that because the migraines could be controlled, he had the RFC to perform medium work. All RFCs for medium work in this age range direct a finding of not-disabled; therefore, according to the grids, the claimant was found not disabled.

Other Options for Approval

Even if the grids alone would deny you disability benefits, there are other strategies you can use to try and win your claim. For example, if you have non-exertional limitations, such as not being able to use your fingers, you might be able to qualify for disability. Other examples of non-exertional limitations include postural problems (like the inability to stoop) or difficulty with focus and concentration (from mental health or other physical issues.) For more information on how to win a claim using this strategy, see our article using a combination of exertional (strength-related) and non-exertional limitations.

Or, if the SSA gives you a sedentary RFC but you can prove that you are unable to do even a sit-down job, you can be approved (you would fall outside the grids). For more information, see our article on how to win your claim based on an RFC for less than sedentary work.

Another way you may be able to win your claim is under the "worn-out worker" rule. To qualify under this rule, you must have a marginal education (6th grade or less) and have worked at least 35 years in arduous (extremely physical) unskilled, labor, and your impairment must prevent you from doing this kind of job anymore. For more information see our article on the "worn-out worker" rule.

Finally, if you are a few months away from turning 55 and would be approved for benefits based on using the older age category of 55-59, the SSA will look at the facts of your case to decide if the older age grid should be used. However, the SSA is not required to do this, and generally makes this decision on a case-by-case basis for those with more severe limitations.

Contact an Attorney

The grid rules may be a useful tool to win a claim for disability for some people between the ages of 50-54. If you fall within a "disabled" box, you should be approved for benefits. If you are denied in this case, or you fall within a "not disabled" box, you should contact a disability attorney to discuss your case to see if you can be approved inside or outside the grid rules. To find a disability attorney in your area, visit our disability attorney locator tool.

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