After you apply for Social Security disability insurance (SSDI) or SSI, Social Security will most likely ask you to complete an Activities of Daily Living Questionnaire form. Social Security uses this daily activities questionnaire to help evaluate how severely a medical impairment affects a person's life. In deciding if you're disabled, Social Security assesses the functional limitations you have on both work activities and activities of daily living (ADLs).
The ADL questionnaire is a form listing common activities that everyone who is self-sufficient might be expected to perform, such as:
The form will also ask if there are things you can longer do, whether you take part in any social activities, and how your impairment prevents you from working. Social Security has an official form for this purpose, Form SSA-3373-BK, Function Report.
Social Security uses the function report form to find out exactly how an impairment affects an individual's behavior. The agency then uses that information to determine if that individual is capable of "participating in substantial gainful activity" (SGA). (Being able to do SGA means being capable of earning a minimum amount each month—around $1,300. If you work and earn more than the SGA limit, you're not eligible to receive disability benefits).
Both physical and mental impairments can have an impact on your ability to cope with daily life and go to work. For example, a back impairment, such as spinal stenosis or degenerative disc disease, could prevent someone from driving long distances, sitting or walking for a long time, or doing housework. A mental condition, such as bipolar disorder or a traumatic head injury, could cause someone to have cognitive issues or behave so inconsistently they can't manage their finances or hold on to a job. It's important to add both physical and mental limitations to the disability questionnaire, if you have them.
The disability examiner will review the ADL questionnaire after you submit it. If the examiner finds that the ADL form indicates you can't perform many simple daily living activities, the examiner might conclude that you can't perform work-related activities either. But before making a decision, the examiner might attempt to get additional proof of some of the information on the daily activities questionnaire.
The examiner might contact a third party (someone you name on your disability application) to corroborate any information about how you handle an ADL. Social Security expects that a third party who has routine contact with you will be able to give an "unbiased" view of your impairment and how it has affected or changed your daily routine.
Many people who apply for SSDI or SSI assume that the third party they list on their application will be supportive of their claim for disability, but this is not always the case. Never assume that anyone who isn't living with your impairment fully understands how it affects your ability to function. Chances are an outsider is not completely aware of your pain and suffering or the day-to-day difficulties you now face, unless you tell them.
In processing Social Security disability and SSI claims, claims examiners will often call an applicant's friends and relatives, or even a past employer, to gather information about the applicant's ability to perform ADLs. These phone calls are known as "ADL calls."
A claims examiner will use an ADL call try to fill in the gaps regarding an applicant's physical limitations with information from the phone call. Unfortunately, ADL calls are often used against disability applicants. Claims examiners may subtly phrase ADL questions for the purpose of gathering just the right responses so that they can more easily justify the denial of a claim.
It's a good idea to let anyone you list as a third-party reference on your disability application know that Social Security might be contacting them for more information.
Be sure to discuss your claim and your recent symptoms with them, as well as the impact your impairment has had on your ability to function. Let them know about the difference in what you can do on a good day versus a bad day. You might only see friends and relatives on good days, which could lead them to believe you aren't that limited in your ability to walk, sit, pay attention, and so on.
Having an in-depth conversation about the extent of your limitations will help make sure that the person you've asked to vouch for you will give Social Security the information needed to (hopefully) approve your application for disability.
For more information, see our article on why the ADL form is so important.
Updated February 8, 2022