How to Get Disability for Loss of Peripheral Vision (Visual Field)

You can qualify for Social Security disability benefits if you've got a narrow field of vision.

By , Attorney · Seattle University School of Law

Peripheral (purr-IF-err-ul) vision is the ability to see out of the corners of your eyes. If you have peripheral vision loss, you might feel as though you're viewing things through a tunnel, which is why the condition is sometimes called "tunnel vision." You might be able to see things directly in front of you well (central visual acuity), but everything around the sides can be blurry or dark.

What Happens When You Lose Your Peripheral Vision?

Not all symptoms of peripheral vision loss are as apparent as tunnel vision. Some additional symptoms include:

  • bumping into objects
  • falling
  • difficulty navigating crowded spaces like shopping centers
  • being unable to see well in the dark ("night blindness"), and
  • having trouble driving at night or even during the day.

A loss of peripheral vision can occur as a result of eye conditions such as glaucoma, retinitis pigmentosa, or diseases of your retina (the part of your eye that sends signals to your brain). Additionally, brain trauma, tumors, or strokes can result in hemianopia, causing you to lose sight in half of your visual field.

Is Peripheral Vision Loss a Disability?

The Social Security Administration (SSA) can find you disabled if your peripheral vision is very poor. If you've had a visual field test and the results contain measurements that show a specific amount of loss, the SSA will find you automatically disabled. You can also be found disabled if you can show that your visual limitations prevent you from doing any job.

Getting Disability by Meeting a Listing for Visual Field Loss

The agency has two listed impairments for people who have a greatly reduced peripheral field of vision in their better eye:

"Contraction of the visual field" is Social Security's term for a decrease in peripheral vision (how much you can see). "Visual efficiency" refers to a combination of how much you can see and your visual acuity (how well you can see).

To determine if you qualify for disability automatically under one of the above listings, the SSA will look at the results of your visual field test.

Taking the Visual Field Test

Visual field tests (also known as perimetry) are pretty simple. You don't have to have your eyes dilated, so no drops are necessary. Your doctor will ask you to put your chin on a chin rest and look straight ahead into a machine that generates lights to the side of your vision.

Every time you notice a flash of light somewhere in your field of vision, you click a button. Sometimes the lights are bright, and sometimes they're dim. They occur randomly all around, and sometimes close to the center (to make sure you're concentrating).

As you respond during the test, your results are mapped according to the location and intensity of the flashes of light, to measure the scope of your vision. The scope is determined by how many degrees you can see from a central point.

Do Your Test Results Qualify You For Disability?

Social Security will look at the visual field test results for your better eye to see if you qualify for disability. If you have good peripheral vision in one eye, you won't qualify for disability benefits.

If your visual field is 20 degrees in diameter or less—meaning your visual field is very narrow—you'll meet the requirements of Listing 2.03 and Social Security will find you disabled. Or, if you were tested using a method called automated static threshold perimetry, the agency can find you disabled if your results show a mean deviation of greater than 22 decibels.

If your visual field is greater than 20 degrees in diameter, but you also have poor visual acuity, the SSA will calculate your overall visual efficiency, based on the results of your visual field test and your Snellen test (the eye chart with a large E at the top). For example, if your visual field is 40 degrees and your visual acuity is 20/100 even with glasses, Social Security will find you disabled under Listing 2.04.

Your Doctor's Opinion Can Help

Interpreting the results of visual field and Snellen tests can be challenging for non-doctors. Consider asking your eye doctor to fill out a medical source statement that you can submit to Social Security. The agency values the opinions of doctors who specialize in the area of your disabling condition.

Getting Disability by Showing Reduced Functional Capacity

Even if you don't qualify for benefits automatically, Social Security can find you disabled if the agency finds that no jobs exist that you could safely do with your reduced visual field.

For example, your peripheral vision loss might make it too dangerous for you to drive. If your past jobs included truck driver, it's unlikely that you could return to that work. But, there might be other jobs that you can do that wouldn't put you at risk of injury.

Determining whether such jobs exist is what the SSA calls assessing your residual functional capacity (RFC). Your RFC contains specific limitations on what you should avoid at work due to poor vision. Examples include:

  • no driving of any kind
  • no working at unprotected heights
  • no operating heavy machinery
  • no climbing ladders, and
  • no working in low light conditions.

The SSA doesn't usually award benefits based on an RFC with only visual restrictions, because jobs exist in significant numbers that don't involve exposure to the above hazards. But if you have additional physical limitations due to other medical conditions, your RFC can eliminate all work, and the agency can find you disabled.

For more information and examples, see our article on disability benefits for reduced visual functioning.

Starting a Disability Claim for Peripheral Vision Loss

There are several ways you can start your application for disability:

  • File for disability online.
  • Call the SSA at 800-722-1213 from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday. If you're deaf or hard of hearing, you can call the TTY number at 800-325-0778.
  • Visit your local Social Security field office. (You'll need to call ahead to set up an appointment.)

When you fill out your application, pay particular attention to the activities of daily living (ADLs) questionnaire. Make sure to discuss how losing peripheral vision has affected your life outside of work and how it impairs your ability to work.

Disability Benefits for the Legally Blind

Depending on how limited your field of vision is, you might be legally blind. (Social Security considers you legally blind if you have 20/200 vision or worse in the better eye or a visual field limitation of 20 degrees or less.) In some states, legally blind applicants receive a higher state supplement to their Supplemental Security Income (SSI) payment than nonblind disabled people.

In addition, you can work and receive up to $2,590 per month (in 2024) and still receive disability benefits without your work being considered substantial gainful activity (SGA) by Social Security, as opposed to the $1,550 limit for nonblind disabled workers.

Updated December 12, 2023

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