Getting Disability for a Child With Learning Disability

A child's learning disability must be severe and well documented to qualify for SSI disability benefits.

By , Attorney (Mitchell Hamline School of Law)

A child with severe learning disabilities might qualify for Supplemental Security Income (SSI), which is a disability program for households with limited income and resources. SSI can be a helpful program for children with learning disabilities or developmental delays because SSI payments can help pay for tutors, therapy, lessons, or camps to help improve the child's level of functioning.

To determine if a child with learning disabilities qualifies for disability benefits, the Social Security Administration (SSA) has a disability evaluation handbook that outlines the criteria for disability for various medical conditions. The SSA calls these rules "listings."

Is a Learning Disability a Disability?

Social Security recognizes learning disabilities as disabling medical conditions under listing 112.11, for "neurodevelopmental disorders." This listing applies to dyslexia (reading difficulties), dyscalculia (math difficulties), and other types of specific learning problems.

(For children with borderline intellectual functioning or intellectual disorder (formerly called mental retardation), see our articles on disability and borderline intellectual functioning or disability and intellectual disorder.)

Meeting the Disability Listing for Learning Disorders

Under listing 112.11, a child must have one of the following:

  • significant difficulties learning and using academic skills
  • frequent distractibility, difficulty sustaining attention, and difficulty organizing tasks
  • recurrent motor movements or vocalizations, or
  • hyperactive and impulsive behavior (like difficulty remaining seated, excessive talking, difficulty waiting, or restlessness).

A child also must be either "extremely" limited in one of the following areas or "markedly" limited in two of the following areas:

  • understanding, remembering, or applying information (ability to learn terms and concepts, follow instructions, solve problems)
  • interacting with others (ability to understand social cues, cooperate, make and maintain friendships, handle conflicts)
  • concentrating on tasks and maintaining pace (ability to complete tasks in a timely manner, ignore or avoid distractions, work close to others without distracting them), and
  • managing oneself (ability to protect self from harm, regulate emotions, control behavior, maintain personal hygiene).

The SSA defines a "marked" limitation as one that seriously interferes with a child's ability to start or finish tasks. Marked is "more than moderate, but less than extreme." An "extreme" limitation very seriously interferes with a child's ability to start or finish tasks. The SSA finds only the worst limitations to be extreme, but extreme doesn't necessarily mean a total loss of ability to function.

Many children with severe learning disabilities will be able to show that they're markedly limited in learning and understanding information, but most won't be extremely limited in this area (at least those with an IQ above 70). And many children with learning disabilities won't have a marked limitation in a second area (like social interaction, concentration, or managing oneself), so it can be difficult to meet the criteria in listing 112.11.

For example, dyscalculia, an inability to understand numbers, can include the inability to understand addition and subtraction, to know how many objects are in a group, and to read analog clocks. But a diagnosis of dyscalculia implies only difficulties related to numbers and arithmetic; a child with only a dyscalculia diagnosis would be expected to have normal cognitive functioning in other areas. It would be difficult to show that a child's cognitive functioning as a whole —in other words, his or her ability to learn concepts, understand instructions, and apply information—is extremely or even markedly (seriously) impaired.

How Can You Prove Your Child's Learning Disability Is Disabling?

To apply for disability based upon a learning disability or developmental delay, you'll have to provide documentation of the learning disability or developmental delay and how it impairs your child's functioning in the above-listed areas. School records and educational personnel are the two best sources of information with regard to learning disabilities.

Generally, school records include a longitudinal (long-term) history of the learning disability, because schools document a child's level of functioning over time by including the following:

  • various standardized and/or specialized testing
  • psychological testing
  • notes about attendance and behavior, and
  • evidence of any school-based interventions, like speech therapy or individualized education programs (IEPs).

Opinions from teachers provide a unique insight into the child's overall functioning throughout the school years. Teachers and other qualified personnel may complete the Teacher Questionnaire (Form SSA-5665). The questionnaire is an extensive form that allows the teacher completing the form to describe what the child can and cannot do, or is limited in doing. This form is a great way for educators to address the mental and physical limitations of a child with a learning disability, including how well a child is able to perform the following:

  • learn, acquire, or use information
  • maintain attention to start and finish tasks
  • initiate and sustain emotional connections with others
  • move his or her body or manipulate objects, and
  • copes with stress or changes in the environment.

Even if a child's records document a history of the child's learning disability or delay, the SSA may still want to obtain a current measure of the child's learning limitations. It's not uncommon to be asked to bring the child to a psychological consultative evaluation to evaluate the child's current level of functioning.

Does a Low IQ Score Qualify for Disability?

A low IQ alone no longer qualifies for disability. Even if a child has a full-scale IQ score of 70 or below, or a full-scale IQ score of 71-75 with a verbal or performance score of 70 or below, the SSA will need to see that they have the same extreme or marked limitations as described above. Only then would the child likely qualify for disability benefits under listing 112.05 for intellectual disorders. For more information, see our article about getting disability for a child with a low IQ.

How Can a Child With Learning Disabilities Get SSI?

The SSI program has strict income limits and asset limits, and Social Security will count part of a parent's income as belonging to the child for eligibility purposes. For more information on whether your child can get SSI, read our articles on how Social Security treats family income.

If you think your child qualifies, talk to the SSA. You can call 800-772-1213 to ask questions or make an appointment with an SSA representative.

If you're ready to apply for Social Security disability benefits on behalf of your child, you'll need to complete two steps.

First, you should complete the online Child Disability Report, which can be found at https://secure.ssa.gov/apps6z/i3820/main.html.

Second, call 800-772-1213 to make an appointment with an SSA representative to file an SSI application over the phone (the SSI application cannot be completed online) or in person.

If you have questions or you'd like help with the application process, you may want to request a free case evaluation with a legal professional to determine if your child's symptoms qualify for benefits.

Updated June 1, 2022

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