Social Security Disability Benefits & Low IQ

A disability applicant with a combination of low IQ and functional impairments can qualify for disability benefits.

By , M.D.
Updated by Diana Chaikin, Attorney · Seattle University School of Law

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.

What IQ Is Considered Disabled?

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:

  • Very superior scores are 130 and above.
  • Superior scores are between 120-129.
  • High average scores are between 110-119.
  • Average scores are between 90-109.
  • Low average scores are between 80-89.
  • Borderline scores are between 70-79.
  • Extremely low scores are 69 and below.

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.

Getting Disability for Low IQ Under the Intellectual Disorder Listing

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:

  • significantly subaverage general intellectual functioning
  • significant deficits in current adaptive functioning, and
  • that the disorder started before age 22.

Applicants need to satisfy all three elements in order to meet Listing 12.05.

Significantly Subaverage General Intellectual Functioning

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 71-75) also satisfies the first element if they have a verbal or performance score of 70 or below.

Significant Deficits in Current Adaptive Functioning

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:

  • understanding, remembering, and applying information (such as learning new things, exercising judgment, planning, and following instructions)
  • interacting with others in socially appropriate ways
  • being able to focus on tasks long enough to complete them in a reasonable time, and
  • adapting or managing oneself (such as regulating emotions, handling changes in routine, taking precautions around danger, and dressing appropriately at work.)

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.

Establishing the Disorder Began Before Age 22

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.

Getting Disability for Low IQ Under the Listing Covering Borderline Intellectual Functioning

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:

  • frequent distractibility, difficulty organizing or sustaining tasks, or hyperactive and impulsive behavior
  • significant difficulties learning and using academic skills, or
  • recurrent motor movement or vocalization ("tics").

Social Security will look at school records, doctors' notes, medical source statements and activities of daily living for evidence of the above requirements.

When Low IQ Rules Out Performing All Work

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.

How Legal Representation Can Help

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

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