Does Borderline Intellectual Functioning Qualify Someone For Disability Benefits?

Disability applicants with IQs of 71 or higher can qualify for disability benefits, especially if they have other impairments.

Borderline intellectual functioning is a cognitive impairment that applies to people who have lower than average intelligence but do not have severe intellectual disorder or mental retardation. Borderline intellectual functioning is diagnosed by IQ test scores that are between 71 and 84. People with borderline intellectual functioning typically have difficulties with learning, reasoning, planning, abstract thinking, and judgment. Lower than average intellectual functioning can be caused by birth injury, infections, genetics, fetal alcohol syndrome, or environmental exposure to toxins such as lead. 

When Does Low IQ Qualify for Disability Benefits?

In general, borderline intellectual functioning by itself is not enough to be found disabled under the Social Security Act. (The impairment listing for intellectual disorder in Social Security’s "blue book" requires an IQ of 70 or less. See our article on getting disability for intellectual disorder). 

An applicant with borderline intellectual functioning, especially in combination with other mental or physical impairments, may be able to qualify for disability benefits by proving that his or her impairments make it impossible to find full-time work. Social Security assesses an applicant’s mental limitations to come up with the applicant’s mental "residual functional capacity,” or “mental RFC.”  The RFC is then used to determine whether there are any jobs the applicant can do despite his or her limitations. A mental RFC will discuss the applicant's abilities in the following areas:

Following instructions. Applicants with borderline intellectual functioning may have a limited ability to understand, remember, and carry out complex instructions. They may require that tasks be broken into individual steps that can be completed one at a time, rather than being given a series of instructions that must be remembered and followed one after another.

Supervision and training. The need for close supervision and/or an extended training period is another, related limitation. A person with borderline intellectual functioning may not be able to do any of the jobs that don't provide much support from supervisors.

Concentration. People with borderline intellectual functioning may also have limited ability to concentrate and focus. They may need to avoid multitasking, or doing several things at once. As a result, they may be limited to jobs that involve only simple, routine tasks. Evidence of difficulties with concentration may be found in work evaluations that show frequent errors.  

"Pace" is another workplace limitation that may apply to someone with borderline intellectual functioning. Someone who needs extra time to perform tasks may not be able to do certain jobs, such as assembly-line work.

Judgment. Because people with borderline intellectual functioning often have impaired judgment and reasoning ability, they may have a limited ability to make judgments on complex work-related decisions. This is another potential workplace limitation that should be included in the applicant's RFC, if applicable.

Social functioning. Borderline intellectual functioning often causes difficulties with social functioning and communication. Someone with this condition may be unsuited to jobs that involve dealing with customers. This should be reflected in the mental RFC as a limitation in contact with the general public.

Evidence Needed to Apply for Borderline Intellectual Functioning

A person with borderline intellectual functioning should gather as much evidence of the above limitations as possible when applying for disability benefits. School records, testimony from teachers or supervisors, and other evidence may show a higher level of impairment than the IQ score alone might suggest. In addition, applicants should submit their IQ test scores to Social Security, making sure to include information about the standard deviation of the IQ test that was used. The standard deviation could indicate that test scores tend to be high and may not fully reflect the applicant’s disability. 

For more information how Social Security assesses whether an applicant's mental and cognitive limitations rule out work, see our article on how Social Security uses mental RFCs to assess disability.

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