How the Medical-Vocational Grid Rules Are Used to Determine Disability

Social Security uses a grid of medical-vocational rules to determine whether applicants of a certain age should be found disabled.

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Winning a claim for disability becomes easier the older a person gets. This is because the Social Security Administration (SSA) considers the fact that a successful transition to a new workplace or field for an older worker may be more difficult than for a younger worker (the SSA calls this a "vocational adjustment").

For claimants (applicants) who don't meet a medical impairment listing, the SSA will look to the "grid rules" to determine whether a claimant is disabled. When referring to the grids, the SSA takes into account the person's education, the skill level of the person's last job, whether any of those skills could be transferred to a new job, and the physical residual functional capacity of the claimant. Using on these factors, the grid rules state whether the claimant is disabled or not disabled.

However, even if the grids say you should be found "not disabled," there are ways to argue against this and still be approved for benefits. We'll discuss some of these strategies at the end of this article.

Before Using the Grids

The SSA must make several determinations in addition to the claimant’s age before applying the grids:

  • the residual functional capacity of the claimant (RFC)
  • how much education the claimant has
  • the skill level of the past work, and
  • whether any of the skills from the past work can be transferred to another job.
Let's look at how each of these figure into the equation.

Residual Functional Capacity (RFC)

An RFC is a detailed assessment prepared by the SSA that assigns you a level of work based on any strength-related (exertional) limitations you may have. Your RFC is the most you can do on a sustained basis (such as being able to lift 50 pounds and walk for six hours per day). There are five different RFC levels:

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

Most disability applicants are assigned sedentary, light, or medium RFCs. There is a different grid, with different rules, for each of these RFC levels.

Your RFC also discusses any non-exertional limitations you have that restrict your ability to do work-related activities, which can be helpful if the grids say that you aren't disabled (the grids use only the exertional level in your RFC, not the non-exertional restrictions). For more information, see our articles on RFCs and non-exertional limitations.

Education

The SSA divides educational levels into the following categories for the purpose of the grids:

  • illiterate or unable to communicate in English
  • limited education or less (generally 11th grade and below)
  • high school graduate or more (including GEDs), and
  • recent education that trained you for a skilled job (with at least a high school education).

As to the last category, the SSA calls this “high school graduate or more but does provide entry into skilled work.” This comes up only rarely, and applies to a person who finished an educational program shortly before he or she filed for disability. For example, in one case, a 50-year-old man with a high school education returned to school to train as an electrician; however, shortly after completing his final apprenticeship, the claimant suffered an injury and applied for disability. Even though the claimant graduated high school over 30 years ago, the SSA classified his education as “high school graduate or more but does provide entry into skilled work” because of his recent training to become an electrician.

Previous Work Experience

The SSA will classify your past relevant work as unskilled, semi-skilled, and skilled. This determination is made based on your description of your past work, how long it took you to be trained for the job, and how your work is classified by the Department of Labor. For more information on how the SSA determines a job's skill level, visit our article on unskilled, semi-skilled, and skilled work.

If you don't have any relevant work experience, the grids are more likely to say you are disabled, especially if you are older, have a limited education, and/or have a lower RFC (for sedentary or light work). (If you haven't done any work in the past fifteen years, this counts as not having any work experience. For more information, see our article on what past work can be counted.) In fact, if you are 55 or older, didn't graduate from high school, and have no relevant work experience, you'll be deemed disabled. 

Transferability of Skills

The SSA will also consider whether the skills you learned from your past job can be transferred to a new, similar position, without the need for too much additional training. If you do have skills that can be easily used at a new job (for instance, you managed sales reps at your old job, so you could manage customer service reps at a new job), it will be more difficult to win your claim. For more information on how the SSA determines whether your skills are transferable, read our article on job skills and disability.

Using the Grids

To see how the SSA may decide your case, you'll first find the table for your age group that discusses 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.

For example, for someone age 55-59, here are the first few rows of the table for sedentary work. Someone with an 8th-grade education ("limited") whose past jobs were "unskilled" will be found disabled.

Education

Previous Work Experience

Decision

Limited or less

Unskilled or none

Disabled

Limited or less

Skills that are not transferable

Disabled

Limited or less

Skills that are transferable

Not disabled

To see all of the actual grid rules, see our articles on the grids for your age group. If you're within six months of the next age group, you might want to read the article for that age group as well.

RFCs for Heavy Work

RFCs for heavy work fall outside the grids. If the SSA has determined that you have the RFC to perform heavy work or even "very heavy work," you will generally not be approved for benefits. This is because if you can do heavy work, you will be able to perform medium, light, and sedentary work as well. Given that wide range ("occupational base," in SSA lingo), there are bound to be some jobs you can do within it. However, if you have non-exertional or mental limitations, you can still get disability benefits even though the grids say you are not disabled.

Ways to Win Disability Outside of the Grids

Many disability applicants will find that the grid rules dictate they are "not disabled." This is almost always true for applicants ages 18-49. Fortunately, for those who are truly disabled, there are ways to refute the grid rule that applies to you.

Non-Exertional Impaiments

You may still be able to win your claim if you have non-exertional impairments that limit what you can do, even if your physical RFC is for heavy work or the grids say you aren't disabled. Non-exertional impairments can be those that affect your mental functioning (such as depression), non-strength-related physical limitations (such as problems using your hands or fingers), or environmental limitations (such as not being able to be exposed to smoke, fumes, dust, noise, or temperature extremes). The grids are to be used only as a framework if you also have non-exertional limitations that are so significant that you can't do a wide range of jobs in your RFC level. For more information, see our article on combining exertional and non-exertional impairments to win your claim.

If your limitations are purely non-exertional or mental in nature -- that is, you have no exertional limitations -- the grids are not used at all.

Inability to Do Sedentary Work

If you can prove that you can't even do sedentary work, you should be found disabled. If you have certain types of limitations that prevent you from being able to do even a simple sit-down job, you should be give an RFC of "less than sedentary work," in which case you should be found disabled regardless of your age, education, and work history. For more information, see our article on less than sedentary RFCs.

Here are some other ways to beat the grids:

Getting Help

The grid rules can frequently help older people win their disability claims. However, important factors such as the skill level of your past relevant work or the transferability of your skills can dictate whether you are denied or approved for benefits.

It's difficult for most applicants to use these factors to their benefit successfully on their own, but an experienced disability attorney can argue that your past work required less training and skills than the SSA thinks, or that your skills aren't transferable to jobs the SSA says you can do because either they don't apply or because your limitations prevent you from using those skills. You may want to meet with a lawyer and discuss where you fall within the grids and what your options are. To find a disability attorney in your area, use our disability attorney locator tool.

by: , Contributing Author

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