The Social Security Administration (SSA) refers to disorders involving low IQ as "intellectual disorders." In the past, the agency had used the term "intellectual disability," and before that, "mental retardation." Intellectual disorders can be disabling when they're severe enough to meet a listed impairment or when they prevent somebody from performing even the least mentally demanding jobs.
In order to determine whether an applicant can be found disabled due to low IQ, Social Security needs to see evidence supporting a diagnosis of decreased intellectual functioning, such as doctor's notes and IQ test results.
Today, most IQs are assessed according to the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale (WAIS), although Social Security will accept results of other valid, standardized intelligence tests—such as the Stanford-Binet—performed by a qualified specialist.
The WAIS classifies IQ into the following categories:
People with IQ scores that are below 75 might qualify for disability under the SSA's Listing 12.05 for intellectual disorder, while people with IQ scores in the low average to borderline range could qualify under Listing 12.11 for neurodevelopmental disorders.
Intellectual disorder is one of the SSA's listed impairments—conditions that can qualify disability applicants for benefits automatically without having to prove that they can't do any jobs. In Social Security lingo, this is called "meeting a listing."
In order to meet the requirements of Social Security's listing for intellectual disorder, the agency needs to see documentation of the following three elements:
Applicants need to satisfy all three elements in order to meet Listing 12.05.
Social Security looks at results of a valid IQ test in order to determine whether an applicant has significantly subaverage general intellectual functioning. The test must meet generally accepted current standards for psychometrics (measures of mental capabilities), be performed by a licensed specialist, and be administered individually—tests administered to a group of people at the same time, such as at school or in the military, don't count.
IQ test results can be divided further into full-scale and verbal or performance scores. Somebody with a full-scale IQ of 70 or below has satisfied the first element of Listing 12.05, while somebody with a slightly higher full-scale IQ (between 71-15) also satisfies the first element if they have a verbal or performance score of 70 or below.
Just having a low IQ isn't enough to meet the requirements of Listing 12.05. Applicants must also provide evidence that they have "marked" limitations two, or "extreme" limitations in one, of the following areas of mental functioning:
Extreme limitations are more severe than marked limitations. A "marked" limitation means that you're able to function independently in that area but you need a lot of help, while an "extreme" limitation means that you're unable to function in that area independently.
People with intellectual disorders tend to have a long history documented by school and medical records, so Social Security can usually easily verify whether an applicant had intellectual difficulties before age 22. But when that's not the case, it's up to the SSA to prove that an applicant didn't have cognitive limitations before age 22.
Any cognitive decline that happens after age 22—for instance, due to brain injury, stroke, or dementia—is evaluated under Social Security's neurocognitive listing instead.
Applicants who don't meet the criteria for the intellectual disorder listing but have an IQ within the "borderline" or "low average" range (generally, below 85) might qualify for disability under Listing 12.11 for neurodevelopmental disorders.
Listing 12.11 covers a range of cognitive disorders that begin in childhood, including borderline intellectual functioning. These disorders cause difficulties with basic mental activities such as remembering information, following directions, and organizing time, space, materials, or tasks.
In order to qualify for disability benefits under this listing, applicants must show the same "marked" or "extreme" functional limitations required by Listing 12.05. Additionally, applicants' medical records need to contain documentation of at least one of the following:
Social Security will look at school records, doctors' notes, medical source statements and activities of daily living for evidence of the above requirements.
People who have IQ scores above 85 or who don't otherwise meet the listing criteria can still qualify for disability benefits if they can show that they can't do simple, unskilled work. Unskilled jobs involve routine tasks that can be learned in under one month and don't require much independent judgment. Examples include parking lot attendant, small parts assembler, or cleaner.
Because unskilled jobs are considered the least mentally demanding types of work, applicants often have a hard time showing that they can't perform them. One way is by being unable to maintain enough focus to perform even the easiest jobs full-time. Another way is by having additional physical or mental impairments that, when combined, keep you from working. And people older than 50 may be able to show that a low IQ score prevents them from using any transferable skills at another job, which can help them get benefits under the medical-vocational grid rules.
Qualifying for benefits due to low IQ can be difficult. Most applicants who are ultimately awarded benefits don't find out until after they've had a hearing in front of an administrative law judge, a process that can take several years.
Consider hiring an experienced disability attorney or advocate for help with your Social Security application. Your lawyer can gather important medical information you need for a successful case, submit a pre-hearing brief that outlines the reasons why you qualify for benefits, and promptly handle communications with the SSA.
Updated March 14, 2023
Need a lawyer? Start here.