When a Limited Education, Illiteracy, or Inability to Speak English Helps You Get Disability
Older applicants for Social Security or SSI disability can be more likely to get disability benefits if they didn't graduate high school, can't read or write, and/or don't speak English.
Some disability applicants, especially older ones, can be approved under Social Security's “grid” rules even if they could do some type of easy, undemanding job. This is particularly true for claimants without high school diplomas, for those who cannot read or write, and for applicants who cannot communicate in English. Here's how it works.
When you apply for disability, Social Security will first look to see if your medical condition qualifies for automatic approval because it "meets a listing.” Most people’s conditions don’t meet the complicated listing requirements needed for automatic approval. In these cases, Social Security will look at your age, education level, and "residual functional capacity" to see whether you fit into a "disabled" category in its grids of medical-vocational guidelines.
The "grids" are a series of tables that direct a finding of disabled or not-disabled based on a number of factors, which include your education level. The other factors used in the grids are: your age, the skill level of your past work, whether you learned any skills that could be used in a new job, and your residual functional capacity (RFC). An RFC is the physical level of work a person can do on a full-time basis despite his or her medical condition.
This article is an overview of how the Social Security classifies education levels and how these education levels are treated by the grid rules. We have several other articles that will help you better understand how the grids work and how to understand the other factors used in the grids. You can learn more by reading our articles on the grid rules, the importance of your RFC, how the SSA defines the skill level of your past work, and the transferability of skills.
What Are the Different Educational Levels?
The Social Security Administration (SSA) divides education levels into the following categories, which are explained more fully below:
- illiterate, and
- unable to speak or communicate in English.
To determine your education level, the SSA considers not only how far you went in school, but factors like how long ago you completed you education, your hobbies, test scores, and other activities.
You will need to provide the SSA with proof of how far you went in school. To get this information, contact the school district you last attended. It is also helpful to give the SSA the results of any tests you took, evidence that you were in a special education program, and any other proof of your education level.
If your last year of school was in the 7th to the 11th grade, the SSA defines your educational level as “limited.” A person with a limited education has reasoning, math, and language skills, but doesn’t have the educational qualifications to do the more difficult tasks needed for skilled and semi-skilled jobs. For this reason, they are generally expected to do only unskilled work.
Having only a limited education will not guarantee an approval of benefits, but if you are older and can only do a limited amount of physical work, and you don't have any skills from your old job that can be transferred to another job, you will likely be approved under the grids. Here are examples where claimants were denied or approved in light of their limited education.
- A 47-year-old claimant applied for disability because of heart disease and Type-2 diabetes. He attended school through the 8th grade and had an RFC for light work. His past work was as a field hand, which is unskilled work. Despite his limited education, the grid rules directed a finding of not disabled.
- A 57-year-old claimant applied for disability due to carpal tunnel syndrome in both hands. Her last year of school was the 10th grade. Her past work was as a seamstress, which is semi-skilled but didn’t provide her with any skills she could use in another job. Because of her limited education and the other factors discussed, the grids directed a finding of disabled.
- A 53-year-old man filed for disability because of arthritis in his knees and shoulders. His last year of school was the 9th grade. His past work was as a sorter in a factory, which is classified as unskilled. Even though he had the RFC to do sedentary work, his limited education was one of the factors that the grids used to direct a finding of disabled.
If you didn’t attend school past the 6th grade, the SSA defines your educational level as “marginal.” A person with only a marginal education generally has the reasoning, math, and language skills to do only simple, unskilled jobs. The SSA considers a marginal education to be a limiting factor for claimants 60 and older. Here is an example.
- A 62-year-old claimant applied for disability due to arthritis in her hands and advanced Type 2 diabetes. Her past work was as an unskilled laborer and she had a 5th grade education. Even though the SSA determined she had an RFC to do medium work, because of her marginal education, the grids directed a finding of disabled and she was approved.
If you are unsure whether your marginal education will affect your claim, you should speak to an experienced disability attorney in your area.
The SSA will consider you illiterate if you cannot read or write simple messages, even if you can sign your name. A person who is illiterate usually has little or no education. Under the grid rules specifically, illiteracy is a factor only for people 45 to 54 years old, and it does not guarantee approval of benefits. Here are some examples.
- A 53-year-old man applied for disability because of mild emphysema. The claimant could only sign his name and was unable to read or write. He hadn't worked in the last 15 years. Even though the SSA determined he could do light work, given his illiteracy, the grids directed a finding of disabled.
- A 45-year-old woman applied for disability because of heart disease, diabetes, and fibromyalgia. She was unable to read or write. Her past work was as an unskilled packer on a production line. Her RFC was for sedentary work (sit-down jobs). Given her inability to read and write, the grids directed a finding of disabled.
- A 37-year-old man applied for disability due to lumbar and thoracic back pain. He was unable to read or write. His past work was as a field hand, which is unskilled. The SSA determined he could still do a sit-down job. Even though he was illiterate, the grids directed a finding of not-disabled because of his young age.
Inability to Communicate in English
A person who is unable to read, write, and speak in English might be approved under the grid rules if he or she is 45 years or older. The grid rules do not take into consideration a claimant's education level if he or she cannot communicate in English. This is because English is the primary language spoken in the United States, and being unable to communicate in English makes it difficult to do most jobs. Here are some examples of how the inability to communicate in English affected a claim under the grid rules.
- A 45-year-old woman applied for disability due to shoulder impingement syndrome in both shoulders. Surgery had been unsuccessful. The claimant was unable to communicate in English. In her native country of Vietnam, the claimant had a high school education and some vocational training. However, once she came to the United States, her only job had been as a packer in an orchard, which is defined as unskilled work. Even though the SSA determined she had the RFC to do a sit-down job, given her inability to communicate in English, the grids directed a finding of disabled.
- A 29-year-old woman applied for disability due to a back injury. She had no significant work history. The SSA determined he still had the RFC to do a sit-down job, and, despite his inability to communicate in English, the claimant was denied.
- A 51-year-old man applied for disability due to moderate hearing loss and glaucoma. His past work had been as an unskilled field laborer. The SSA determined that he still had the RFC to do light work; however, because the claimant was unable to communicate in English, the grids directed a finding of disabled.
If you are unable to communicate in English and are an immigrant, you should check your immigration status to see if you are eligible for benefits. For more information, see our section on citizenship and residency requirements for Social Security disability benefits.